County history book is a treasure

The Continuing History of Marshall County, 1997, may be one of the best kept secrets in Marshall County, and yet a top resource in the Times-Republican newsroom.

It was authored by a group of county historians, among them the late, esteemed Dorothy Apgar.

More importantly, the large, thick book is more than a history book, it gives the reader a snapshot of what Marshalltown was like years ago

Not being a native, it has been my number one source when in doubt about a subject or in need of information quickly.

Like a good athlete, it came through in the clutch again and again.

Once I was using it to research black churches in Marshalltown.


Because I needed information about the former Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church at 523 S. 5th St. I learned that was just one of several names the church had been bestowed.

The church history, and a sampling of the black experience in Marshalltown was nothing less than fascinating.

The Morrow United Methodist Church was founded in 1917 by blacks who had left Alabama after a crop failure, and decided to start a new life in Marshalltown.

“African American Churches Anchor Black Communities” is the heading on page 224 in the book.

Not only was the Morrow church listed, but others as well.

Marshalltown native Roger Maxwell, now of Windsor Heights, said there were once about 375 blacks in Marshalltown with four active black churches. The Church of God in Christ, then at 604 W. Madison, and the Colored Cumberland Presbyterian Church were two.

Unfortunately, two incidents which occurred at the former were disturbing and outrageous.

A burning cross was placed at the church property to protest “as some people were unhappy that church members were too vocal during the praise services,” read the entry in “Continuing History.”

There was another shocking incident.

“Another time the congregation was tear-gassed during a service and Elder H.P. Fisher was arrested for the same reason,” reported The Continuing History.

Maxwell lived in Marshalltown from 1932-50.

While he and his family were members of another church, they did attend services at the Morrow Church too.

“On Sunday afternoons it was the practice to attend services at other black churches in Marshalltown,” he said. “There would be preaching and singing. People attending might contribute a dollar. It was a way of augmenting the salary of that church’s pastor.”

He recalled how hot it would be at times.

“We used the small fans provided by funeral homes to cool off and we kept them,” he said. “Despite the heat, people really dressed up.”

The conversation turned to civil rights issues and Maxwell was frank about Marshalltown’s past.

“Many talented black people left Marshalltown because they could not get work here,” he said.

He cited the case of a black man who wanted to work at the local post office. He was unsuccessful in finding work here and moved to Detroit.

“He later became the postmaster for the Fords, Chryslers and others who lived and worked in nearby Grosse Pointe, Mich.,” Maxwell said.

“A black woman who was a talented secretary and stenographer had a difficult time finding work at Marshalltown business.”

The county history book substantiates Maxwell’s claim and more also on page 224.

“It was hard for them (blacks) to find decent employment. Even after World War II, only the packing house and garages were likely to employ young black men. Blacks used to refer to Marshalltown as “Little Mississippi.” There was a change beginning in the late 1960s with the establishment of a local Civil Rights Commission. Until federal laws were enacted, it was almost impossible for blacks to purchase homes in desirable areas of the city.”

The Morrow Church was dissolved a number of years ago by its few remaining members who were in their 80s.

The building and property was sold to a local couple who own a nearby business.

And the now closed church remains as a testament to those who saw Marshalltown as a place for a new beginning.


Contact Mike Donahey at 641-753-6611 or