Villisca has a fascinating history, a blend of history~~mystery. This self-guided tour starts at our community square and takes you around town, highlighting some of the major pieces of our history along with some quips that, well, are just fun to share. If you are interested in particular pieces of our history, we also give you the choice of a tour by subject - the 1912 Unsolved Axe Murders, our military history, the story of the Pultizer Prize Winning Photo, the important place of the Railroad in our story, historical moments recorded in our cemetery, ....
Our story is reflected in the unsolved 1912 axe murders, in patriotism illustrated by those who have stepped forward time and time again to answer the call of their country to serve in the military, which was memorialized in a Pulitzer Prize winning photo, to everyday people distinguishing themselves with academic, business and cultural accomplishments. Historically, Villisca provides an environment in which people flourish. It is a community of people with diverse interests and backgrounds; a community of individualists. As Liz Murray noted in Homeless to Harvard, "History - It is each of us - it is all of us."
Our story expresses some of the endearing qualities that makes living in Villisca forever an adventure. In many ways Villisca is typical of many of the small rural communities that dot the Iowa landscape. While we have many similarities, like our name, there is only one Villisca. We have a story to tell. Chuck Offenberger, a renown columnist for the Des Moines Register in the 1990s, once described Villisca as " A nice little town where something awful once happened”. Carolyn Gage, former publisher of the Villisca Review wrote in 2000, "While it is not pleasant for Villisca to be remembered as the site of these murders, it is foolish to ignore what happened. History, no matter how painful, should never be rewritten." So, we tell the story here. While the events of that night in 1912 impacted life in Villisca even to this day, there is more to Villisca's history and we share some of that on these pages.
So, let's get started. The basics: Villisca means beautiful land between two rivers.
Villisca was platted in 1858 and was only a ‘paper town’ until the first railroad went through in 1869 when Villisca was legally declared a town. Villisca is located at 40°55′45″N 94°58′41″W / 40.92917°N 94.97806°W / (40.929115, -94.978162).
The Ioway Indians camped between the forks of the Nodaway Rivers, south of town, with that land being their hunting ground with millions of buffalo.
The Ioway Tribe was a friendly tribe, unlike the Sioux, who were also in our area. They would send smoke signals from the hill north of town on the west side of the road, the road that goes past the cemetery. Numerous battles were fought with the Sioux. Chief Mahaska, rather than being taken by the Sioux tribe, was killed by his own tribe and buried north of Tenville. His grave was destroyed when the river was straightened. The remainder of the Ioway tribe resettled near Indianola, Iowa.
Villisca was platted in 1858 and was only a ‘paper town’ until the first railroad went through in 1869 when Villisca was legally declared a town.
Before the railroad came to Villisca, the first clocks came to Iowa when the railroad ended at the eastern edge of the state, according to John Gourley. Some entrepreneur bought a large number of clocks back east, shipped them to Burlington, loaded them into a wagon and set off across the state. The early settlers didn't have any cash, so he bartered his clocks for livestock. John said his family traded a steer for one of them.
In 2007 the Villisca Chamber of Commerce had a competition for a logo and a tagline. The logo and tagline they decided on was created by Donna Williams.
We begin our Tour on Villisca’s square.
All the north and south streets are named Avenues and the east and west streets are named Streets.
In the mid 1800s, the farmers and ranchers would drive their cattle to town with horses, sometimes at night so that the cattle would not get too hot and loose weight. They would take them right through town, from whichever direction they came, to get them to the railroad. In 1882, an ordinance was passed by the City Council preventing the running of livestock through the town proper and residential areas. The cattle would be held down by the railroad tracks until time for them to be shipped out.
Villisca’s square, Company F Memorial Park, with its lush field of grass and abundance of trees, is set between 3rd and 4th Avenues and 3rd and 4th Streets. In 2000, the Villisca City Council named the square Company F Memorial Park. As it happens, the northeast corner of the square is the intersection of 3rd Street and 4th Avenue and 3rd Avenue and 4th Street intersect at the southwest corner. On November 11, 2001, the Red Bull Memorial Monument was dedicated in the Park. The flagpole from the Armory was installed near the monument. At the base of the flagpole is a representation of the stars that were on the airplanes in WWII. Between the points on the star are the names of the branches of the military. The American Legion sold bricks with the names of veterans which were set in a design of the outline of the State of Iowa. More bricks are displayed on the Veterans Wall. Included among the bricks are bricks representing military commitments of the Focht family from the Revolutionary War, Mexican Border War, WWI, WWII and the Korean Conflict.
The 34th Division was formed during World War One and was sent to Camp Cody in Deming, New Mexico for training. While there a contest was held to come up with a divisional patch. Marvin Cone won the contest with his black clay pot and red bull skull taken from a painting he had done earlier. Cone was a friend and classmate of Grant Woods the famous Iowa artist.
Each year on Memorial Day the Company F Park and the Cemetery are decorated with American Flags which have been dedicated in the name of veterans, with many of them being burial flags. It is a breath-catching sight and is a visual reminder of those Villiscans who have served our country through their military service.
The city square is the location for many community events including the Interchurch worship service which has been held on the 4th of July weekend for more than 25 years.
In 1976, the Reno Smith FFA chapter came up with the idea of restoring a bandstand in the square. The idea came as they looked through some Villisca history books and discovered that there had been a wooden bandstand in the park in the 1800’s. Reno Smith FFA chapter had many projects in the mid to late 1970’s. The “bandstand” was a BOAC (Building Our American Communities) project for the bi-centennial year, 1976. They presented the idea to the City Council for approval and permission, received it and proceeded to draw up plans and work out the details of location etc. The FFA kids with their sponsor Chris Nelson raised the funds and built the bandstand in the winter, spring, and summer of 1976. They had the able guidance of another teacher and contractor-type person, Bob Lemon for the actual construction. It was dedicated at the 4th of July celebration that year. The Reno Smith FFA chapter won a National BOAC Project award and they were recognized at the National Convention in Kansas City for the project.
It was reported that there were nearly 7,000 people in Villisca for the funeral which was held in the square because there was no place large enough to hold all the mourners. The caskets were placed in City Hall during the funeral. At that time, City Hall was located on the corner of 3rd Ave. and 3rd St where the Villisca Community Center now stands.
Moving east on 3rd St on the north side of the square, is Villisca’s Armory, built in 1912 at a cost of $6,600 with a large part of the money coming from public donations. Its history is symbolic of the strong history of the military in Villisca. At Thanksgiving time in the early 1940s, in an effort to help the citizens, the Commercial Club sponsored a Turkey Drawing. Live turkeys were released from the roof of the Armory. Turkeys flew everywhere. This was discontinued due to the angulations of the turkeys as people would literally tear them apart wing-from-wing in an effort to claim a turkey, due in large part to the shortage of meat. Meanwhile, inside the Armory, young ladies gathered to sew shirts for the boys overseas. Over the years the Armory was the scene of military balls, of military training, and was the center of Villisca social life. The Armory was sold to the Villisca schools in 2000 to be used as classrooms while the new addition was being added to the high school. The building has limited use at this time. The building is being evaluated to be used as a multipurpose center.
An air dome theatre occupied a lot on the north side of the square for the summer months in 1912. Doc Childs opened the Cozy Theater after the success of the air dome theatre, which burnt in 1929. He moved to a building on the east side of the square. Doc Childs had a large family and following the birth of his then youngest child he was said to have announced that the person holding the winning ticket at Saturday night’s show would receive his latest red-headed baby. The Theatre was crowded for this awesome event – the lady holding the winning ticket stood up and announced that she “was not going to raise Doc Childs’ baby” and left. So, they drew another winning ticket and the lucky lady went up on stage to collect her prize, only to receive a little red pig out of the fancy baby buggy.
The east half of the building that currently houses Johnston’s Communications once housed the local Candy Kitchen. The story goes that the owner of the Candy Kitchen got lucky one night, or perhaps unlucky, and lost his wife in a poker game. They say he ran out of money so he played the hand, with his wife at stake, and lost her to a salesman from Chicago – she was good looking and did go with the salesman – seems as if she was faintly acquainted with him ahead of time.
At one time the Roll of Honor hung on the west side of the building that stood at the southeast corner of 3rd Ave and 4th St., listing all the local men who were in the service.
Heading south from the Square on 3rd Avenue just north of the alley was the location of the Bell Telephone Office, which had the only long distance service in town in 1912.
South of the alley we find where the offices of Tyler’s Bottling were located. If you are very lucky you may have a small 6 oz. coke bottle that says “Villisca, Iowa”. Tyler Brothers, now Atlantic Bottling Company, has been a big part in the history and heritage of Villisca. In 1909, brothers Harry and Henry Tyler became partners in an ice-cream and dairy business in Villisca. Three years later, they bought a creamery in nearby Clarinda, While sorting through papers found in the creamery's warehouse safe, a document granting a Coca-Cola franchise to the business. The brother's concocted some of the bubbly beverage and bottled it to sell alongside their flavored soda waters. By 1930, they were producing soft drinks full-time, with plants in several towns. In 1949 Harry and Henry divided the business for estate purposes. Harry kept the Atlantic and Creston bottling plants and Henry acquired Shenandoah, Clarinda and Grand Island plants. Today, the Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Company is one of 100 entities authorized to sell Coca-Cola products in the United States. Pictured is the Coca-Cola Truck in the 2005 Heritage Days Parade.
On July 2, 1881, an article of agreement was made between C.B. & Q. Railroad and the town of Villisca for an undercrossing tunnel on Third Ave. A folk story tells of a man and his team of mules parting at the tunnel. While driving down into the tunnel a plank slipped forward off the wagon – hit one of the mules on the leg causing the mules to bolt, one mule to the left and one to the right, causing the man to hit the cement pillar in the middle of the tunnel, meeting his untimely death.
The railroad turn table and round house was on the south side of the tracks and the depot was to the east on the north side of the tracks.
There are a number of stories that center around the railroad which played an important role in Villisca’s history in the late 1800s and much of the 1900s. One is the story of young lads who during the war years would jump up on the coal cars and throw off coal and then jump from the cars, go back to pick up the coal which they either took home for use or would sell.
At one time the parishioners of St. Joseph Catholic Church worshipped at several locations in Villisca including a "chapel car" on a railroad siding.
In the early railroad days, at least two hotels were in Villisca to accommodate travelers with signs by the front doors that stated “Guests Without Baggage Pay in Advance.” Fisher Hotel on the west side of 3rd Avenue – a three story brick with electric lights and furnance, promoted itself with ‘Best in table service.’ Western House, east of the Depot, partially burned in 1900 was remodeled and rebuilt to become the Ingman Hotel, later known as the “Elms”. It was destroyed by fire in 1956.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photo – World-Herald photographer Earle "Buddy" Bunker captured a family reunion on July 15, 1943. Lt. Col. Robert Moore stepped off the train in Villisca, greeted by his 6-year-old daughter, Nancy; his wife, Dorothy; and his 2-year-old nephew, Michael Croxdale. The photograph, one of the most enduring images from World War II symbolizing the hopes of a generation whose men fought that war, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Not a single face shows in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, but the joy is overwhelming - a daddy in a round military cap stooping to wrap his arms around a spindly-legged daughter reaching up to his broad shoulders in a welcoming hug. Mom waits her turn, a hand to her face in delight. An excited little boy watches.
In 2008, a home movie taken by Eva Croxdale – mother of the little boy in the photo – at the scene of the photograph surfaced and was used in a mini-documentary by Gazetteonline.
The 2-yr old in the Homecoming photo grew up and went to war himself during the VietNam War. He was captured in a photo taken by Cynthia Johnson for an article for Discover Magazine at the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. Again, the photo doesn't show a face. To family and friends he was instantly recognizable with his jacket, his shaggy hair, his flashy ring, made by a friend from a 1926 three-dollar gold piece. That was even his brand of cigarettes in the left hand. In an article written in 1997 about those in the Homecoming Photo, Stephen Buttry, World-Herald Staff Writer, wrote of the Michael Croxdale photo "He would be an Everyman, grieving for a fallen comrade."
Photos of these photos can be found at the Senior Citizens Center on the Square.
The Villisca Depot no longer stands.
The railroad has a place in the story surrounding the axe murders. At the time of the murders, Villisca’s Depot was a bustling place. Lt. Col. Robert Moore, who is pictured The Pulitzer Prize winning photo taken at the Depot, was 7 years old when his uncle, aunt, four cousins and two visiting children were killed in the unsolved axe murders.
Ed Epperly, who has six file cabinets of documents on the case, said there is plenty of evidence to buttress the confessions and build a case against Rev. Kelly, a window peeping preacher who had been at the Children’s Day program attended by those murdered that dark night. According to one couple, Kelly talked of the massacre in animated detail on a train in the early morning hours of June 10, 1912, well before the crime scene was discovered by the Moores’ extended family and authorities.
The documentary “Villisca: Living with a Mystery” raises the possibility that the murderer was a railroad worker who killed his mother and grandmother in Missouri with an axe in December of 1912, months after the Villisca massacre. Rundle said Henry Lee Moore, no relation to the slain in Villisca, could have committed the murders there and elsewhere randomly.
Until perhaps the Viet Nam war, the Depot was the place where Villiscans gathered to say goodbye to our troops as they left for war. The patriotism was even seen in the way the Engine was decorated when National Guard troops were departing.
On one fine summer day in 1953 or 54, as the Vista dome car of the California Zephyr was approaching the bridge on the way to Villisca while a group of boys were in the river below, swimming with their heads bobbing on top of the water as they sat on the sandy bottom. Suddenly, as if we were part of some synchronized swimming team, in unison, we rose, all at once, and waved at the travelers in that dome car wildly gesturing and making their presence known while simultaneously exposing their bare back sides to the Scenic Cruiser, giving extra meaning to the ads that stated “see the country from the seat of a luxury car”.
A favorite “field trip” for Villisca kindergartners in the 40s and 50s was a trip to Red Oak on the train. The children boarded the train in Villisca and were met in Red Oak by teachers and parents who drove them back home after having lunch in Chitaqua park. Today our elementary children still ride the train on a field trip but unfortunately it is not from Villisca. We still hear both passenger and freight trains rumble pass Villisca several times a day but they have not had a Villisca stop for decades.
Villisca was the sight of a major train accident in the mid-1980s. The clean up took weeks. In the mid-2000s, there was an accident of a passenger train in Nodaway. Villiscans and people from Nodaway and other surrounding communities showed their compassion and hospitality in caring for the passengers who found themselves stranded in this little corner of the world called southwest Iowa.
The depot was torn down in 1987. It was deemed too close to the tracks and was termite infested. Many of the bricks were redeemed from the sight and a group of local artists painted them with a picture of the depot. In recent years Sharon Moriaty created a model of the Depot which can be viewed at City Hall. The sound of the trains passing by, especially in the still of the night, still calls to Villiscans.
Returning north along the west side of 3rd Avenue across from Villisca Foods was the site of the former Villisca Fruit and Grocery. During WWII there was a shortage of meat. A large brown bear was in a cage in back of the store until one day the meat counter was full and the bear was gone.
During the Prohibition era of the 1920s, Villisca always had 2 or 3 local bootleggers to help satisfy the thirst. Bootlegger’s Alley was behind what is now the U.S. Post Office, which used to be Carl Taylor’s Smoke House “A Man’s Home Away from Home.” The bootleggers would hide the Needle Whiskey for the buyers to come along later and pick up – if it had not already been found by the local youth who were always watching for “the drop”. The price was from $2.00 to $2.75 a pint. One of the bootleggers always wore a very big, very heavy overcoat which had lots of inside pockets, no matter how hot the summer days, he still wore THE coat. A somewhat slow-minded bootlegger called the “Methodist Bootlegger” delivered his ‘product’ to someone who promised to pay him at a later date. When he complained to a friend that the bill had not been paid, the friend suggested that he report the deadbeat to the sheriff. He did and, of course, had to serve time in the pokey for his own illegal activities.
Moving north you find the Rialto Theatre. The Rialto Theatre was not originally designed to be a theatre facility. The building originally housed Arbuckle Grocery and Dry Goods Store. Apartments occupied the second floor. In February 1929, after the Cozy Theatre fire, F. M. Childs purchased a small building next to Arbuckle’s. The building was remodeled into a movie house with 3 seats on each side of a center aisle. The theatre was named The Swan.
The theatre changed hands shortly with Childs moving out of Villisca soon after his wife’s death. Joe Pennington purchased both The Swan and eventually Arbuckle’s store. Renamed The Patsy Pennington enlarged the movie theatre. Once he owned the Arbuckle property The Patsy became what is now called the Rialto. In 1936, walls were torn out and apartments gutted to create the auditorium of the new theatre for movies.
The movie theatre’s operation was short lived. Financial problems set the theatre to close until the mid 50s when the Rialto Theatre was reopened. Jack Butler recalled seeing wax statues of movie characters in front. The Rialto was sort of a city marker for those afraid to journey to the wrong side of town. Some called anything south of there, ‘below the deadline’.
The Rialto Theatre began seeing hard times financially in the late 60’s. Kenneth Oltmann took over ownership and management in 1971. February of 1973 marked the first interest in using the Rialto as a live theatre producing facility. Villisca Restoration, Inc. was formed and the group bought the theatre. and the old bakery where the Senior Center and a youth center were established. For a time the science club did lots of community projects-including running the Rialto. That even made the World Herald. The Villisca Community Theatre became known for its summer theatrical productions which drew people from all around southwest Iowa. The theatre, operated by a Theatre board, is in another time of transition to rediscover itself in light of the opening of the Wilson Center of Performing Arts in Red Oak which has summer theatre productions.
Moving north, just south of the alley stands the building which housed Honeyman’s Drug from 1910 to the time it suffered from a fire in the 1990s. Honeyman’s Drug was purchased by Stoner’s Drug. Note the interesting corners on the upstairs of the buildings. Stoner’s Drug has since moved two doors to the north. Stoner’s Drug was a popular place for pictures during RAGBRAI in 2009. The bikers seemed to find amusement in the name Stoner’s Drug.
The Villisca Review, Villisca’s weekly newspaper, was once housed above Honeyman’s. Across the alley and upstairs was the Villisca Farmers Mutual Telephone Office where switchboard operators heard talk between Joe Moore and Dona Jones. Across the street – east – was the Bell Telephone Office, which had the only long distance service in town.
The corner building on the west side of the square to the north was known as the Jones building and housed the Farmer’s Bank where F. F. Jones was cashier. Dr. Cooper, the first doctor at the Moore home following the murders, had his offices upstairs. The building burnt on January 6, 1912 and F.F. Jones was in the midst of remodeling at the time of the axe murders. It was then that Dr. Cooper moved his office to the upstairs of the Nodaway Valley National Bank building across the street directly to the south. The Bank, which is now the location of fine dining, is now in this building which was built in 1906.
Looking west along 4th Street past the Jones building, where NAPA Auto Parts now stands, is where the Opera House once stood. The Opera House was also the gathering place for the first military group established in Villisca. The Opera House closed in March 1912.
Directly across from the Bandstand is Villisca’s City Hall. The building was the First National Bank which was forced to close during the depression. In 1937 it was purchased by the City for $2,500.
Karle Bakery, where locals have memories of the many sweets baked by Emil Karle, a German immigrant who came here after WWI, was located north of City Hall where the Senior Center is now located. Residents remember awesome Chocolate Cream Sandwiches and Cream puffs from Karlee’s – but only in the winter. Karlee’s had no refrigeration so they would have spoiled in the summer.
Villisca Restoration, Inc. bought the Rialto and the old bakery where the Senior Center is now located. Initially the location also included a youth center.
Photos of The Homecoming, the Pulitzer Prize Winning Photo and The Wall can be viewed in the window of the Villisca Senior Citizens Center.
From 2nd St and 3rd Ave, go east on 2nd St, turning south on 5th Ave. The NW corner of 5th Ave. & 5th St, was the site of the first constructed church in Villisca, the Methodist Church built in 1869.
Just east of S 5th Ave on the N side of 3rd St, you will find a large stone from the Lincoln School. The Lincoln Building was on 4th St and W of 1st Ave where the Lincoln Heights Apartments are now located.
At 107 S. 5th St. and you will find Mr. Calvary Lutheran Church, one of the five churches in Villisca. All of the underground cement blocks of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church were made by hand.
Fifth Avenue is known as Villisca’s Boulevard Street – patterned after the French Street System. At one time Third and Fifth Avenues were known as front streets and Second and Fourth Avenues as barn streets because the large houses on 3rd & 5th Ave had access to their barns behind their houses on 2nd and 4th Ave.
Continuing north on 5th Ave and then heading east on 3rd Street you will find the Villisca Swimming Pool which was built in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration, (WPA) at a cost of approximately $40,000. WPA was a government program that found work for those unemployed by the Great Depression. The Pool is a major form of recreation for children, teens & adults in the summer months. Swimming lessons are offered. Adult swims offer exercise and aerobics for seniors.
In the ‘70’s the deck and bathhouse were remodeled and a slide was added. In the ‘80’s the high board stand was lowered and a baby pool was added for those 3 and under. In 1998, a Pool Renovation Committee was formed and has worked to raise funds for major renovations. The pool is managed and operated by the City of Villisca. The City absorbs the operational costs not covered by fees for use of the pool, for swimming lessons and for use of the pool for private parties. The city budget does not have dollars for ongoing upgrades and renovations so that money must be raised through donations, fundraisers and grants.
Next to the Swimming Pool is the VHS Football Field which is also the location for the Villisca Heritage Days Fireworks. The pillars that greet you as you head into the swimming pool and football field, first stood at the Villisca Cemetery. They were moved as a result of changes at the Cemetery.
At one time Villisca had a small airport that was located across the street from the football field.
Just to the west and south of the pool was the location of Tyler’s Lake and Meadow Gold Ice Cream Plant-both very prosperous in the 1940s. Tyler’s Pond was a “summer resort” with cabins.
Coming back to 6th Ave. and 2nd St is a small frame house, the site of one of the grisliest murders in Iowa history when the family of Josiah Moore and two overnight guests were bludgeoned to death as they slept. These murders are most often referred to the 1912 Unsolved Axe Murders. The Stillinger girls, the overnight guests were in the back downstairs bedroom, the Moore children were in the front upstairs bedroom and the parents in the back upstairs bedroom.
It was a dark night, that night of the murders. The streets were darker than usual because of a dispute between the city council and the electric company, which actually turned off the city lights.
On Sunday night, or early on the morning of Monday, June 10, 1912, Villisca was the scene of one of the most vicious crimes in all the history of the world. While the city lay sleeping, following a peaceful Sabbath, some fiend incarnate entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Moore on East Third Street, and, wielding an ax, six members of the J. B. Moore family and the two daughters of Mr. & Mrs. J. T. Stillinger were brutally murdered with the heads of all crushed with an ax..” Villisca Review copyright 2000
The murderer was never found. No one was ever convicted of these crimes. This certainly altered the lives of all those who were close to the incident. Even now, nearly 100 years later, there is speculation. The murders did not happen within a vacuum. Family stories were interwoven in the fabric of community life.
The home was owned by Josiah Moore where he and his wife, Sarah, and their four children lived. The Stillinger girls were in the front downstairs bedroom, the Moore children were in the front upstairs bedroom and the parents in the back upstairs bedroom. After the murders, the house remained in estate until 1915. It has been owned by 8 individuals since that time, with the home often being rented. The house was purchased in 1994 by Darwin Linn who restored the house to how it was in 1912. The Moore home received the "Preservation at its Best" award in the small public category from the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance in 1997 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Tours of the home are available which have a blend of historical highlights of 1912, information on the axe murders and a perspective on the impact on community life and talk of ghosts and paranormal activities. The home is currently owned by Darwin Linn’s wife Martha.
Using old photographs, the Linn's began the restoration in late 1994. Work on the home included the removal of vinyl siding and the restoration and repainting of the original wood on the outside, the removal of the front and back enclosures, the addition of an outhouse and chicken coop in the back yard and the removal of all electrical and plumbing fixtures. The pantry in the original house had been converted into a bathroom and was also restored to its original condition. Using testimonies given during the coroner's inquest and grand jury testimonies, the Linn's have placed furniture in approximately the same places it occupied at the time of the murders.
The home was built in 1868 by George Loomis, Lot 310. After the murders, the house remained in estate until 1915 when it was purchased by J.H. Geesman. Before the home was purchased by Linn, it was a residence. There are 13 owners listed on the deed. The house was often used as rental property.
The garage that was originally on the property was removed to make way for a peg barn that was donated to Linn by an area farmer in 2004. The peg barn is reminiscent of the early 1900s. The rafters in the barn have been signed by visitors to the house over the last few years.
Mary Peckham lived in the first house west of the Moore home. She was the one who called Ross Moore, Joe Moore’s brother, the morning after the murders indicating that she thought something was wrong at the home. She had not heard the normal hustle and bustle of chores being done. Later in the year, her son took her out west and she was put in a home for the mentally disturbed.
Villisca was labeled “A nice little town where something awful once happened” by Chuck Offenberger, a renown columnist for the Des Moines Register in the 1990s. The murders remain one of the most intriguing and unsolved mysteries of all time. Non-fiction and fictionalized books have been written about the murders, as have film and TV presentations. The murders caused a 50-year inquiry by Dr. Ed Epperly. Detective J. N. Wilkerson investigated the case for 32 years. The award winning documentary Villisca: Living with a Mystery by Kelly and Tammy Rundle tells the story not only of the murders but the impact they had on life in Villisca for decades to come. In recent years, Darwin Linn, a local businessman purchased the house and has promoted it as a tourist attraction, with an emphasis on the paranormal. The murders inspired a number of media pieces and books including a novel Blood Ran Red by Stephen Bowman and a factual retelling Villisca by Roy Marshall. They have also been featured in TV segments on “ghost hunters” and are a feature narrative project entitled Haunting Villisca, co-authored by James Serpento and Kimberly Busbee, which combines a fictionalized present-day scenario with scenes suggested by courtroom transcripts, folklore and current paranormal investigations of the house where the murders occurred.
The murderer was never found. The murders affected the very fabric of life in Villisca even into the 21st Century.
The NW Corner of 1st St and 5th Ave is the location of the home of State Senator F. F. Jones. Jones had successfully run for the State Senate in 1912 losing his bid for reelection in 1916. By then he was considered a suspect in the axe murders. Joe Moore had been an employee of Jones until a disagreement over wages. Moore had opened a competing hardware store across the street. John Deere pulled its product from the Jones Store, giving the line to Moore. Jones was known to cross the street to avoid Moore, his business rival. In the fall of 1911, Moore had engaged in an embarrassing affair with the Senator's daughter-in-law. In 1916 F.F. and his son, Albert, were openly accused by Detective James Newton Wilkerson of having hired William "Blackie" Mansfield to kill Joe Moore and his family. Jones fired back with a slander suit against Detective James Newton Wilkerson which he lost. Detective J. N. Wilkerson investigated the case for 32 years, died in December of 1944. A local citizens group, of which Ross Moore was a leader, pressed the state to reopen the case and this group contributed money to that end but Att. General George Cosson hired the Burns agency. Burns sent a detectve James Newton Wilkerson. The community was split for many years over the guilt or innocence of the former State Senator. F.F. Jones was never brought to trial. This house was built by Jones in 1898, a three story house which at the time was the largest home in Villisca. The third floor was destroyed by fire in the 1930s and never rebuilt. F.F.’s study and library were on the second floor to the south and many items from it are on display in the public library. The Jones family suffered much politically and socially from the tragedy. Son Albert died in 1935, F. F. in 1941 and his wife in 1944. Their daughter Letha moved to New York, returning only in the summers until her death in 1973.
The eight victims are buried at the Villisca Cemetery located at the north end of Fifth Avenue. As you enter the cemetery – count 7 trees on your right. To the left of the 7th tree are the Moore and Stillinger’s family lots. To the right of that tree is the Jones family lot. Mrs. Stillinger gave birth to a stillborn son the same week her daughters were brutally murdered.
Carolyn Gage, publisher of the Villisca Review wrote in 2000: "As is evident, time did not ease the memory of the crime nor did it quiet the gossip. " No one was ever convicted of these crimes; this certainly altered the lives of all those who were close to the incident. Even now, nearly 100 years later, there is speculation. "While it is not pleasant for Villisca to be remembered as the site of these murders, it is foolish to ignore what happened. History, no matter how painful, should never be rewritten. Furthermore, it is to the community's credit that no one was 'railroaded' just to bring an end to the incident." ~~Villisca Review © 2000
Pictured is the Villisca Cemetery in the early 1900s. Note the pillars that now stand at the entrance to the football field and swimming pool.
The wall along the west side of the cemetery, like the Villisca swimming pool, was constructed by WPA workers in 1936. The gateposts or columns that are now at the entrance to the swimming pool and the football field at one time stood at the cemetery entrance. The iron gate that was between them at the cemetery was removed and went to someone who scrapped out metal. Rather than selling them, he kept them and upon learning that they were stored in a building in Villisca, Mayor Susie Enarson reclaimed them and had them re-installed replacing some metal farm-type gates.
Each year on Memorial Day the Company F Park and the Cemetery are decorated with American Flags which have been dedicated in the name of veterans, with many of them being burial flags. It is a breath-taking sight and is a visual reminder of those Villiscans who have served our country through their military service.
A monument of interest at the cemetery is a stone tent.
If you walk to the second road and turn left, or to the west, it is located about half way down, then to your left, to the south. General Ellis moved to Iowa in 1870 following his service in the Civil War in Pennsylvania. He and Mayor Gibbs came to Iowa together. They were both active in the life of Villisca, General Ellis helping to organize military Company B in 1876. General Ellis and his wife retired on a pension of $36 per month in a little white house on West 3rd Street.
A tombstone in the north part of the cemetery has removable bronze plates and a hollow center that was used as a hiding spot for the transfer of bootleg liquor in the 1920s. It has been reported that has been used by later day youth for the transfer of liquor to underage drinkers – modern day bootlegging of a sort.
The story is told of a young girl who was only known as Elizabeth. She came to town on the railroad in 1889. She soon took up with one of the local lads who did his entertaining in the haymow of a livery stable. Unfortunately during an evening’s entertainment, Elizabeth suffered a seizure and died. There was no way to identify her, so she was buried in the ‘potter’s field’ area of the Villisca Cemetery. Being an honorable lad, he saw that she had a proper burial and for years after, flowers always mysteriously appeared on her grave.
Another of the interesting stones is the one referred to as the Refund Stone. The date of birth and the date of death are reversed so it appears as if the deceased was born after he died.
Recovered remains of Laurent Lee Gourley, a war hero who gave his life for his country during the Vietnam War era, were interred at the Villisca Cemetery in October, 2002. In November 1968 Gourley was an F-100F fighter pilot in South Vietnam. He volunteered for a 90-day assignment as FAC (Forward Air Controller). During that assignment he was shot down over Laos on August 9, 1969 and was placed in Missing in Action status. He was promoted to the rank of Major December 2, 1969. During 2001-2002, a joint U.S./Lao People’s Democratic Republic team excavated a plane crash site in Xepon District, Savannakhet Province, Laos where Gourley’s remains were recovered. Lee graduated as Valedictorian from Villisca High School in 1962; graduated with Highest Honors from the US Air Force Academy with a majors in Astronautics and was Commissioned as a 2nd Lt in the USAF in 1966; and got his Masters’ degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue University in 1967.
Leaving the cemetery, going to S. 2nd Ave, north of the square on the west side stands the Villisca Public Library built in 1908 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie and a match from the City of Villisca of 10%. The Library was built for $11,000. The Library currently houses the “Jones Room” with items from the F.F. Jones home and artifacts given to the Library by the Tyler’s, the Coca Cola family in Villisca. Gertrude Tyler was a missionary to China at the time of the political unrest in the early part of the 1900’s, and there are artifacts from her time spent there.
At the corner of 2nd St. and 3rd Ave. you find the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches which were directly affected by the murders. The Moore family had attended the Presbyterian Children’s Day program that Sunday evening. The F.F. Jones family were Methodists. The Methodist Church was built on its current site in 1896. The church burned in 1938, and was rebuilt on the same site in 1939. The fire took place on a Sunday morning in November 1938. The Presbyterian Church was built in 1899 across the street from the Methodist Church. Following the axe murders of 1912, folks in town picked sides and pointed fingers. Children from one camp were told not to play with those in the other. Adults would not patronize merchants in opposing camps. For years after the 1912 Murders, the Presbyterian (Moores') and Methodist (Joneses') churches would not cooperate on anything. Today members from all five Villisca churches worship with each other and share in religious experiences in Villisca through the Villisca Interchurch Council.
The Advent Christian Church is located at the corner of 2nd Ave and 3rd St. Elder B. Forester of the A.C. denomination came to Villisca in the summer of 1885 to hold tent meetings. As a result an Advent Christian Church was organized in 1885. A one room church was built at Fifth Avenue and 3rd Street. The building was moved to its present site in 1958 where an empty Baptist Church stood to make room for an expanded gym at the high school. The lumber from an A.C. church that had closed in Brooks was used to build the Villisca parsonage which was moved to its current location in 1958. It was built to the same floor dimensions as the Brooks church. In 1995, the church burned in a Christmas Eve fire, rebuilding at the same location.
Heading north on 2rd Ave to 1st Street, turn left and going to the 100 block of 1st St. On the right is the entrance to the Harris Harmony Trail. One trip around this walking trail is 1/5 of a mile. This trail is yet another community project, funded and completed by Villiscans. It has lovely stops along the way with statues and a variety of plantings. It has lights which makes it a pleasant and safe place to walk in the evenings.
At 1st St. and Central Ave, go north a couple blocks. On the right is Sylvia Enarson Elementary School and on the left is the Villisca Good Samaritan Society. In 1969 the Villisca Churches’ Nursing Home Board was formed with each of the Villisca churches represented by two members, becoming an advisory committee with the Villisca Development Board to involve the whole community with a goal of establishing a nursing home. After looking at options for an affiliation, the Good Samaritan plan was chosen for a 66-bed home, costing $400,000. The community of Villisca committed to raise $115,000 plus a donation of the land on which it would be built. By September 1969, Villisca’s campaign had reached $151,000 in gifts and pledges. In November, the Villisca Church’s Nursing Home Board purchased a 5-acre site for the future nursing home. Good Samaritan Society in Villisca officially opened its doors on December 21, 1970. The nursing home board still acts as an advisory group to the nursing home.
The Villisca Interchurch Council was established and held its first meeting on May 25, 1971. It was born as a continuation of a Villisca's Churches Committee that had been established to raise money to build a new Nursing Home. After the Villisca Good Samaritan Center was successfully completed, our Churches felt that more could be accomplished for our community if we continued to work together to serve the Lord. The council is made up of the clergy and 2 representatives from each of Villisca's five churches-the Advent Christian, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and by a member of the Good Samaritan Center.
Just in case you wondered, if you came into Villisca from the north on Hwy 71, you passed Tenville. Tenville is named for its schoolhouse which was built in 1891? Most townships had nine rural one-room schoolhouses. But Washington Township folks —at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th —had so many school-age kids that they needed a 10th school. The community that grew up around the school took it’s name. Ten-Ville. Tenville was once a destination for fun from all over southwest Iowa? At various times, Tenville had two nightclubs featuring liquor and illegal gaming; two popular parks on the bridge road (not at the same time); a café along Highway 71 with a juke box that drew teenagers from around the region; and the best fishing in southwest Iowa. Tenville attracted all kinds of mobsters in the ‘30s and ‘40s, as they travelled along Highway 71 from Minneapolis to Kansas City? Bonnie and Clyde were almost regulars at the Tenville Standard Station, which was located at the southwest corner of the junction of US Highways 71 and 34 (now 205 St.). The Tenville population sign on the end of the tin garage, begun in the late 1970s has become a Facebook phenomenon? There are about 400 Facebook members who “Honk for Tenville.” You’re welcome to honk as you drive by!
Also on Hwy 71, 1.5 miles north of Tenville, is Sciola. The first post office in Montgomery County was located at Sciola in 1854? In those days, Sciola wasn’t located at its current location on Highway 71; Sciola and the Post Office were west across the Nodaway River on T Avenue, north of County Highway 34, on what is known locally as the bottom road. The Sciola Church, a pioneer Baptist church built in 1871, is on the National Register of Historic Places? It originally sat closer to the highway, but when Highway 71 was reworked in the ‘70s, the church was moved west a hundred feet or so and re-oriented to the south. The church is owned by the Washington Township Trustees and is used for weddings, community events, and other social occasions. The cost of a ticket on the AN&S railroad from Sciola to Tenville was 8 cents? The Sciola depot building is currently located in Elk Horn, Iowa, and is labeled Elk Horn Depot. It isn’t; it’s Sciola’s original depot.
One miles south of Tenville, (5 miles north of Villisca) is Arlington. In 1854 a complete town of 40 acres was laid out on the bottom road (T Avenue) in anticipation of a railroad being aligned there. That never happened as Villisca was chosen instead. Now all that is left of that dream community is the old cemetery at the top of the hill, north of 220 Street on T Avenue. There's a grave of an unknown soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Turn west at the Arlington Cemetery driveway and go up the hill to the
end and then turn left again. Go to the second turn to the right, just
around a large fir tree, and there you'll see a stone, commemorating a
unknown soldier. The story is that the "unknown" is a black Civil War veteran who was
denied burial at his "home" cemetery in April 1892 because of his race.
When the Arlington trustees heard of this, they let it be known that
they'd welcome him at Arlington. The veteran was duly buried on the hill and the trustees have always made sure ever since that the grave was marked, although no stone was raised in his honor. Some time before 1987, a local man, Howard "Red"
Lowe, became incensed that there was not an appropriate marking for this
veteran and began to raise money for a headstone. It wasn't much later
that the beautiful stone simply marked "An Unknown Soldier" was raised
over the soldier's resting place and became the center of the annual
Memorial Day observance at the cemetery. Today, it remains a place of
pride in this old, pioneer graveyard.
Just north of the Arlington Cemetery on T Avenue is a small bridge crossing a creek. Local lore says that the Jesse James gang used this ditch as their hideout off and on for several years during their bank and train robbing spree from Missouri to Minnesota during the 1870s. It looks as if they might have had a hard time keeping their feet and guns dry if they weren’t careful!
Villisca is a community of people with diverse interests and backgrounds; a community of individualists; and certainly a community with a unique history. We are a community where the quality of life scores high. Those are some of the endearing qualities that make living in Villisca forever an adventure.
If by chance you are an entrepreneur, an artisan, a business owner seeking a place to start, expand, or relocate your business or work for a business that has embraced telecommuting, we want you to know that Villisca is a perfect place to grow a business.
In many ways Villisca is typical of many of the small rural communities that dot the Iowa landscape. The smaller school population allows our students to participate in as many school and extra-curricular activities as they choose. Our class sizes are small enough that our teachers are still able to take a personal interest in the students. Our students experience excellence in education through our highly qualified teachers and through additional opportunities of online classes and classes at our community colleges for which the students receives high school and college credits. The students receive support from throughout the community.
Our young people and senior citizens can walk the community without the fear of threats or of being mugged. Friends and neighbors and even strangers provide support in times of triumph and/or tragedy.
While we have many similarities to other rural communities, like our name, there is only one Villisca. We have a story to tell.
In these days of dual-income households, Villisca is a great location geographically. We are equidistant from Corning to the northeast to Red Oak to the west and Clarinda to the south; from Shenandoah to the southwest west, Atlantic to the north and Creston to the east. And when Villiscans need the services or pleasures from a metro area, we are not far from Omaha, Des Moines or Kansas City. We have the best of both worlds.
We have experienced changes in the past several decades with changes in agriculture, an ever expanding global economy and an aging population. Where businesses once had to be located in metropolitan areas to experience success, the growth of technology and the Internet is allowing businesses to locate in small communities, places with a higher quality of life, safer neighborhoods, a sense of community.