Upper Iowa University traces roots back to Civil War

(Editor’s note: The following article was republished with permission of The Gazette and business reporter Thomas Friestad. An additional Bridge Online article posted in June 2019 featuring the living memorial replanted at Fayette Campus can also be viewed at uiubridge.com/2019/06/06/living-memorial-replanted-at-upper-iowa-university/.) 

Upper Iowa University’s history was not especially accessible in the summer of 2013, when members of the Parker family visited the Fayette school and went looking for artifacts.

In the intervening years, however, the school has strengthened roots in its past, thanks to a relationship between UIU and the Parkers, who carry on the legacy of Dr. Charles Coleman (C.C.) Parker, the university’s first professor of natural sciences when it opened in 1857 and a Civil War regimental surgeon.

Some of those roots in history are more literal than others.

At a private ceremony June 4, UIU staff and three generations of Parker descendants planted an elm tree sapling on campus, near where Dr. Parker once planted his own elm tree.

Historical accounts and news reports indicate Parker likely planted the tree in 1861, right before he and the University Recruits (Company C, 12th Iowa Infantry Regiment) left to serve the Union, and that a storm is believed to have blown it down more than a century later, in 1971.

Ceremony attendees in June listened as Andrew Wenthe, UIU’s vice president of external affairs and Fayette’s mayor, read remarks from Luther W. Waterbury, a student of Parker’s in UIU’s first chemistry class.

“As you go up the street and take a look at that elm, I know you will join with me in kindly thoughts of the doctor and that his hopes of a wider and better life may be as well rooted as that tree,” Waterbury was quoted saying in UIU’s student newspaper in 1935. “That its breadth of foliage may be a symbol of the broader and happier life which he may expect among the friends on the other side.”

Since the Parkers’ visit in 2013, UIU administrators also dedicated the bottom floor of the school’s library to its archives and began featuring several standout relics.

Now on display is a Civil War battle flag, sewn by female students for the University Recruits and later restored by the Iowa Historical Society. Wenthe said the Parker family also donated Dr. Parker’s original medical kit — a definite product of its time.

“You’re talking amputation saws and things now where you look at what they were using (during the war) and it’s a little horrific, honestly,” he said.

Dr. James Parker, great-grandson of Dr. C.C. Parker, said he developed a childhood interest in the family’s history and UIU, the alma mater of his father, aunts and cousins, and the site of several summer visits in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Parker said university researchers made another discovery relevant to his family’s history after a meeting with several descendants in 2013: a herbarium that later was found to have hundreds of preserved plant specimens, originally collected from around Fayette by Dr. C.C. Parker over the course of his botanical work.

Wenthe said the collection was christened the C.C. Parker Herbarium of Upper Iowa University in October and that researchers currently are planning to digitize its samples, several of which no longer exist in the area.

Lee Tillotson, of Eldora, Colo., great-great-granddaughter of Dr. C.C. Parker, said she remembered hearing about the herbarium from an old family story and was “shocked” in 2013 when the university located it.

Since then, Tillotson said, her interest sparked not just in Dr. Parker’s legacy but also the university’s “incredibly well-preserved history.”

“Current university students have a wealth of historical information available in the UIU archives,” she said. “C.C. Parker’s herbarium is an example of time-consuming and dedicated passion. Perhaps the UIU archives and artifacts will inspire a passion in others.”

1 Comment on Upper Iowa University traces roots back to Civil War

  1. Stu Dunkel // July 31, 2019 at 6:10 pm // Reply

    CC Parker was also the longest serving member of the UIU Board of Trustees……subject of the historical biographical novel At Stormy Time, an excellent read for anyone interested in UIU’s founding and early history…

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