Our Iowa Heritage: The ‘Woke’ Abolitionist & Keeper Of The Fair.

Today, the idea of being ‘woke’ describes a person who is alert to social injustice, especially racism. In America, this word is often associated with politics, assigned primarily to those who align themselves with the Democratic Party.

This political cartoon by Thomas Nast, taken from a 1879 edition of Harper’s Weekly, was an early use of the elephant and the donkey to symbolize the Republican and Democratic parties.

Yet one-hunded and sixty-five years ago (1856), it was the Republican Party that spoke about being “awake” to social injustice, slavery, and civil rights. As a matter of fact, it was the activism of the “Wide Awake” Clubs around the United States that helped a relatively-unknown leader from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln win the White House in 1860.

Today, I’d like to share with you the story of Dr. Joshua Monroe Shaffer – another young ‘woke’ leader living in America’s Heartland in the 1850’s – an active member of the “Wide Awakes” who encouraged the upstart Republican Party to embrace Lincoln as its presidential candidate in 1860.

Let me begin by giving you a brief biographical sketch of Dr. Shaffer, taken from The Annals of Iowa (1913)…

As the biographical sketch (above) indicates, 22-year old Joshua Shaffer came west to Fairfield (see below) in Jefferson County (1852), and immediately began his practice of medicine – a profession he’d follow the rest of his life.

By April of 1853, Dr. Shaffer was already becoming a man of great influence, serving as Jefferson County’s first librarian while also hosting Fairfield’s first library in his own medical office. J.M. was also invited that year to become the first Secretary of the Iowa State Agricultural Society, hosting the first planning meeting (October 13, 1853) for a state-wide fair, and securing grounds in Fairfield to host the exhibition in October of 1854.

Iowa’s first State Fair was held in Fairfield, commencing October 25th, 1854 and continuing for three days. Admission cost 25 cents with 7,000 to 8,000 visitors attending on the six-acre depot grounds of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad. In this unknown artist’s rendering, the gate at the lower left corner stands at what is now the corner of 4th Street and Grimes Avenue in Fairfield.

As Secretary of the first Iowa State Fair, Dr. Shaffer was not afraid to bring his strong abolitionist views into the programming of the fair. Shaffer’s medical teacher back in Pennsylvania – Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne – was a prominent abolitionist who sheltered slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad, and it’s obvious that Dr. Shaffer felt equally passionate about the cause.

It’s reported that the citizens of Lee County (Keokuk-Ft.Madison) opened the first State Fair by presenting a 360-pound “great Denmark Cheese” to Iowa’s new Whig Party governor – James W. Grimes. An abolitionist as well, Grimes would go on in 1855-56 to become one of Iowa’s key leaders in supporting the anti-slavery platform of the newly-founded Republican Party.

Though primarily showing goods made by Iowans—including cattle, oxen, horses, mules, sheep, swine, poultry, farm implements, produce, cloth, prepared foods, artwork, and inventions—the Fairfield fair also attracted first-rate contestants from across the country.

Benjamin C. Perkins brought his sheep some 560 miles from Rochester, Ohio, to Fairfield and won awards for them. Benjamin’s cousin Simon Perkins was the wool-dealing partner of the famous abolitionist John Brown. (FYI-abolitionists often preferred wool to slave-raised cotton). Another of Benjamin’s cousins was Thomas Perkins, whose sister-in-law Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and whose brother-in-law Henry Ward Beecher raised money to arm Free Soil settlers in Kansas with rifles smuggled in boxes labeled “Bibles.” John Andrews of Pleasant Plain, a Virginian Quaker, won the prizes for the best long-wooled sheep, and it’s believed that Andrews was one of the Pleasant Plain Quakers who aided slaves on the Underground Railroad in Iowa.

Click here to read more about the 1854 Iowa State Fair.

Earlier that year (February 1854), a small group of concerned state leaders met secretly in nearby Crawfordsville, Iowa to discuss their frustrations with their own Whig Party. Discussions focused around the failure of the Whigs to come out strongly against slavery, though they were, at least, in favor of condemning the practice as contrasted with the Democratic Party, which fully supported it.

One month later (March 1854) the first public meeting to address these concerns was held in Ripon, Wisconsin, and with it came the birth of the Republican Party.

“Now the old men are folding their arms and going to sleep,” said William H. Seward while campaigning for Lincoln, “and the young men are Wide Awake.”

The Wide Awakes began as a youth organization in the late 1850’s, and later became a paramilitary organization cultivated by the Republican Party throughout the 1860 presidential election. Using popular social events, an ethos of competitive fraternity, and even promotional comic books, the organization introduced many to political participation and proclaimed itself as the newfound voice of younger voters. The structured militant Wide Awakes appealed to a generation which had been profoundly shaken by the partisan instability in the 1850s, and offered young northerners a much-needed political identity.

A Wide Awakes parade in Lower Manhattan (above), one of a series of political rallies held in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston during the first week of October 1860.

The Wide Awake Club stood for Free Speech – Free Soil – Free Men.

Members of the Wide Awakes were described by The New York Times as “young men of character and energy, earnest in their Republican convictions and enthusiastic in prosecuting the canvass on which we have entered.” In Chicago on October 3, 1860, 10,000 Wide Awakes marched in a three-mile procession, and the story on that rally occupied eight columns of the Chicago Tribune.

By the middle of the 1860 campaign, Republicans bragged that they had Wide Awake chapters in every county of every northern (free) state. On the day of Lincoln’s election, the organization had grown to 500,000 members.

As we said earlier, Dr. Shaffer strongly opposed slavery and as an active member of his Wide Awake Chapter in Jefferson County, he was elected, as a Republican, to the State Senate in Des Moines in 1862, replacing James F. Wilson, who had been elected to Congress.

After the war, Dr. Shaffer continued his medical practice in Fairfield, while also remaining as Secretary of the Iowa State Agricultural Society until 1874. During that time, the State Fair continued to grow in popularity, moving its location around eastern Iowa. After the first two years in Fairfield (1854-55), the fair went on to Muscatine (1856–57), Oskaloosa (1858–59), Iowa City (1860–61), Dubuque (1862–63), Burlington (1864–66), Clinton (1867–68), Keokuk (1869–70, 1874–75), and Cedar Rapids (1871–73, 1876–78).

Click here to read more about the Iowa State Fair.

In Our Iowa Heritage collection, we have a rare letter (see below) from Dr. Shaffer addressed to Eber Stone, dated January 30, 1871. Shaffer wrote his letter from Fairfield, using Iowa State Fair stationary, addressing Stone’s search for 20 copies of the State Fair report from 1869.

(C-0278) Iowa State Fair Secretary J.M. Shaffer writes to Eber Stone, Esq. of Lotts Creek, Iowa following up on Stone’s request for 20 copies of the “Reports for 1869” which will be shipped from Ft. Dodge. Stone, as a teacher and school superintendent was probably writing on behalf of his school in Humboldt County.

Records show that Stone and his wife Lucy Knowles lived in Lotts Creek in Humboldt County, being one of Iowa’s first settlers in western Iowa, moving there in the 1850’s. Apparently, Eber was a hardworking man, having served as a teacher back in Milo, NY, and in Iowa, a school superintendent, chairman of county supervisors, and a very successful farmer. Lucy was the first schoolteacher in Humboldt County.

(C-0278) Postmarked January 31, 1871 in Fairfield, Iowa.

In 1874, Dr. Shaffer moved to Keokuk to pursue a position in business, but when that company failed, he returned to practicing medicine. He and his wife Melvina remained in Keokuk the rest of their days. On September 14, 1911, one day after Shaffer turned age 81, The Keokuk Gate City published this heart-warming story about the good doctor…

Less than two years later, on March 25, 1913, J.M. Shaffer, at age 82, died. Again, The Gate City (March 26, 1913) reported on Dr. Shaffer’s passing…

Both Dr. Shaffer and his wife Melvina Curry Shaffer (1833-1904) are buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Fairfield.

Numerous area newspapers wrote glowing tributes to Dr. Shaffer. Allow me to close by quoting from just two…

Dear old Dr. Shaffer is dead. Yesterday afternoon, surrounded by relatives and friends, peacefully and unafraid he passed into the silences. Rich in years and honors and in the esteem of the community in which he had spent the greater part of his active and useful life, death found him fully prepared for the great change that awaited him, and he took his place in the silent halls “as one who wraps the prapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Dr. Shaffer learned how to die by learning how to live. His career from first to last was an example and an inspiration. His warm heart ever beat responsive to the needs, hopes, and aspirations of mankind, and his whole life was one of service to his fellows. He was a grand old man, beloved by all who knew him.

In his long journey through life Dr. Shaffer had eyes only for the most beautiful and he found it in all of God’s creations. He was optimistic, appreciative, unaffected, big-hearted, broad-minded, genial, affable, courteous, gracious and tolerant. His patients had for him a genuine affection, and he returned their confidence and love in full measure.

Is is difficult to realize that he is with us no more. His form was a familiar one on the streets of Keokuk, and his cheery greeting was a benediction that never became trite or stale. His pathway was strewn with sunshine and good cheer. No matter how trying the day or what obstacles confronted, with his presence the darkness vanished and a beautiful day was ushered in. His very life was the giving of pleasure to others. This was a part of his religion – and Dr. Shaffer was a profoundly religious man. Religion was ingrained in his nature and was an integral part of his daily life and conversation. He was therefore a leader in his church, to which he was greatly attached. No one could know him without being better for such association and knowledge. The removal of one so generally known and so well beloved necessarily leaves a large void in the community.

Dr. Shaffer was a man of unusually genial disposition. Care rested highly upon him, and he ever saw the brightest side of everything. He was a man in all that the word implies and yet he had a heart as tender and as sympathetic as that of a woman. He was a lovable man and it was rare good fortune to have known him.

Godspeed – Dr. Shaffer. Thank you for boldly standing up for truth.

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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Choosing 1860’s Presidential Candidates, Gary Gallagher, The Great Courses Daily, October 9, 2019

Joshua Monroe Shaffer, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 11, Number 1, 1913, pp 79-80

Senator Joshua Monroe Shaffer, The Iowa Legislature

Iowa’s First State Fair in Fairfield: 10,000 Visitors Paid 25 Cents Admission in 1854, Rory and Rena Goff, The Iowa Source, August 5, 2013

Jefferson County, Iowa-The First State Fair, History and Genealogy of Jefferson County, Iowa

Wide Awakes, Wikipedia

Abolitionist “Wide Awakes” Were Woke Before “Woke”, Matthew Wills, JSTOR, June 29, 2020

Joshua Monroe Shaffer death notice, The Daily Gate City, Keokuk, Iowa, March 26, 1913, p 5

Dr Joshua Monroe Shaffer, Find-A-Grave

Eber Stone, Find-A-Grave

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