“The traveler by rail from the south, on approaching the city, cannot fail to have his attention drawn to a handsome spot in the bluffs, and a neat, snug brick house on the right of the railway as the city limits are reached. This was the home of Col. Test in the latter years of his life, and here centered all his manly pride and devotion.” (O.L. Baskin; History of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, 1883)
James D. Test was born in Rush County, Indiana, in 1827, the son of Judge Charles H. Test. In 1850, he went to Burlington and found work in a wholesale drug house.
He left Burlington and came to Council Bluffs in 1853, where he met Hadley D. Johnson and Jefferson P. Casady, both members of the bar. The three formed a partnership to deal in real estate. Their office was located at the corner of North Main Street and Broadway — the future site of the First National Bank building. Test studied law during the partnership and was admitted to the bar.
He was elected to the state senate in 1854 and served for two years on the first city council. Johnson left the partnership in 1856, and the firm continued as Casady & Test — a business dealing in land, exchange and banking.
Another early settler was Col. Alvin S. Grosvenor, born in 1806 in New York. He moved to Charleston, South Carolina, at about age 19 and worked successfully in the mercantile business for 15 years. In 1834, he married Ellen Otis of Charleston. In 1846, he moved to Louisiana, where he became a successful planter. He visited Iowa in 1854 and met Judge J.P. Casady — a young man with a new real estate business in Council Bluffs. After staying with Casady for two days, he left $10,000 with him to invest in Iowa lands.
Two years later, Alvin Grosvenor and his wife came to Council Bluffs and made it their home. They had no children, but brought with them Ellen’s adopted niece, Alice Jane Wood, born in South Carolina in 1837.
Alice Wood and Col. James D. Test were married on September 21, 1857, the year this house was built. They had two daughters — Ellen (Nellie), born in 1859, and Carrie, born in 1860.
The 1860 federal census lists as “household members”: Alvin S. Grosvenor (54); Ellen Grosvenor (46); James D. Test (31); Alice J. Test (23); Mary Test (14); and Ellen Test (1). Also listed were Andrew Trentersberg (40) and C. Wakely (45), who were possibly employees. Carrie Test was born that year, after the census was taken. The link to Mary Test states that she was born in Alabama in 1846 and that James D. Test was a “relative.” (The handwriting on the early census records is very difficult to read, and what we see is not always accurate.)
On Jan. 10, 1862, Alice died of diphtheria. County records show that Alvin T. Grosvenor became the owner of this property, and the Grosvenors took over the care of the two young children. James Test went to Colorado, then a territory, and spent several years in profitable mining operations. He returned to Council Bluffs and the house was deeded back to him by Alvin Grosvenor in 1866.
In 1869, Test went to Chicago on business and died on March 18 at the home of Robert Forsyth, Esq., General Freight Agent of the Illinois Central Railroad. The cause of death was reported as “congestion of the lungs.” He was 42 years old.
About his daughters: Nellie died of typhoid fever at eight years of age. Carrie married A.T. Elwell. They had one child, James Test Elwell. Carrie died of diphtheria on June 13, 1879. She was 19 years old. Their baby died of cholera fifteen days later. All of the family members, except A.T. Elwell, are buried in the same area in Fairview Cemetery.
No military record was found for Col. James D. Test. Perhaps it was an honorary title. In some states, the governor may bestow the title of colonel on an individual who has achieved something significant. (Search kycolonels.org.)
O.L. Baskin wrote that Test was a man with generous impulses, an eloquent public speaker, possessed a “splendid physique” and was a political writer for the newspapers.
A 1904 newspaper article (which is not on microfilm) wrote an account of the 1859 visit of Abraham Lincoln to Council Bluffs — before he became president — and included this story: The night following Lincoln’s arrival, popular sentiment demanded that he deliver an address on the burning topics of the day: freedom and slavery.
Handbills announced talks at Concert Hall by Lincoln and James D. Test, as “Test was known to have been the former Secretary of State in Indiana and was violently opposed to Lincoln’s radical views”. The story concluded with, “An exciting time was anticipated.”
This fine Italianate house is one of three of the city’s existing homes known to have been built by 1857. (A fourth, the Folsom House at 137 S. Third St., was built in 1856 but was remodeled to a different style in 1906.) The bricks were hauled up the Missouri River from St. Louis by steamboat, and then over land by ox cart. The 12-room house with a fireplace in each room, a transom over each interior door and a 950-foot-deep well in the backyard was stated in a real estate ad to have been used as a hospital for Civil War veterans, but research did not find any supporting evidence. And is it haunted, as some believe? Thomas Walker purchased the house from the Test estate in 1871. Are the creaking noises on the stairs the footsteps of Mary Walker going up to bed at nine o’clock every evening? The ladies who played bridge at the house on Sunday evenings heard them.
Oral history tells us that the Test House was built by slave labor. However, in 1920, before Iowa was a state, the U.S. Congress had passed a law called the Missouri Compromise which made slavery illegal in parts of the area known as the Louisiana Purchase, including Iowa (IPTV’s “Iowa Pathways — Laws and African American Iowans”).
Iowa became a state in 1848; Missouri became a state in 1821. Since the bricks were brought up the river from St. Louis, it is possible that the transportation could have been accomplished by slave labor, and possibly the construction of the house, or a part of the construction.
In 1878, the 50-acre property was purchased by J.P. and J.N. Casady at a tax sale and subsequently subdivided. The original address was 1535 High St. The front of the house on the bluff is visible from 16th Avenue but it can be better viewed from West Graham Avenue.
Like the story of its builder, the Test House is a reminder of the early pioneers and the hardships they endured as they provided the vision and leadership that influenced the growth and development of early Council Bluffs.
— Acknowledgments: The Reference Department of the Council Bluffs Public Library; Clear Title; Dick Graeme; Darlene Vergamin; O.L. Baskin’s History of Pottawattamie County, 1883.