HWLI 2199-221 Bluff

The double house at 219-221 Bluff St. was, at different times, home to several members of the McGee family, a driving force behind creation of the Council Bluffs parks system.

“Buried deep within the soul of every dweller of the city lays an inherent desire to rub elbows with nature. Though dormant the greater portion of the while, it rises up from time to time and drives the shell within which it dwells into the out-of-doors for a month, a week or a day … A park system forms the respiratory organs of the city- the breathing spaces.” (Review of Council Bluffs Park System 1914 issued by Park Commissioners).

A driving force behind the development of the parks in Council Bluffs was the McGee family — H.G., J.E.F. and Anna and her husband, William Cooper.

Manassah McGee and Mary Fleming were married in their native Pennsylvania in 1855. Shortly after their marriage, Manassah came to Council Bluffs by river steamboat via the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, accompanied by Fred Drexel of Omaha. The two had been pioneer contractors, working together in the building of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Mary arrived two years later.

While in Council Bluffs, the McGees invested in real estate and, sometime later, relocated to Grafton, West Virginia. Manassah died in 1866, and Mary returned to Emsworth, Pennsylvania, where she and the children lived for eight years. In 1874, Mary returned to Council Bluffs to look after her property. She was accompanied by her three children: Harry G., (16), Anna (14) and John E.F (12). As adults, Harry and John were known by their initials — H.G. and J.E.F — rather than by their first names.

Anna married W.S. Cooper and together they operated a real estate and loan office. They had four children — Mary, Harry, Ruth and John.

In 1901, Anna and William purchased land on the bluff near Big Lake, where they eventually made their home. The “cottage” first opened in 1926 as the Wilana Tea Room, owned and operated by their daughter, Mary, who also offered a summer Girl’s Camp, with dance classes, riding lessons, and swimming lessons at Big Lake.

By August of 1928, the tea room and camp had closed and William Cooper had died. Anna sold the property in 1931 to Effie and Elmer Long, who opened a restaurant which became known as Rainbow Gardens.

Over the years, additions were built onto the house, owners and the name changed, and the restaurant was occasionally visited by law enforcement for after-hours gambling and the illegal sale of alcohol. It became a private residence in 1966 and remains so today, still with the breath-taking view for which it was known.

Anna and William worked closely with the Parks Commission of which Anna’s brother, H.G. McGee, was a member. They sold 40-foot strips of their land, at intervals, to the city for $1.00 each to create scenic Rainbow Drive, which was completed in the 1920s.

The new street was named in honor of the 42nd Infantry. The “Rainbow Division” served in France during World War I and took its name from a comment of Douglas MacArthur regarding the widely varied geographical background of the units making up the division (The History We Live In, April 7, 2019).

H.G. McGee came to Council Bluffs with his family in 1874. He worked in a hardware store for about five years and then became a partner in the firm of Cooper & McGee.

According to his obituary, he started in the real estate business in 1887 as a clerk in the I.A. Miller office. He continued in the real estate business until his retirement in 1940 as head of the H.G. McGee Real Estate Company Inc., 105 Pearl St., which he organized in 1929.

McGee served for many years, beginning in 1910, as a member of the Council Bluffs park board. According to his obituary, he was known as the “Father of Rainbow Drive” and was known to be the donor of $1,000 toward the purchase of land around Rainbow Point, the scenic spot commemorating the visit of Lewis and Clark in 1804.

It was his dream to see Council Bluffs develop a system of parks and scenic drives to make the city one of the country’s beauty spots

McGee’s business was in general real estate, but he focused his attention on the platting and improving of residential property – the most notable being the Morningside Addition, with his brother, J.E.F.

Mary, H.G. and J.E.F. lived for a time on Morningside Avenue after the addition opened, but city directories did not list the house numbers, only “Morningside”.

The McGee brothers donated Cook and Graham Parks to the city. Graham Park was named in honor of Andrew Graham, also a member of the park board, who promoted the development of Fairmount Park.

Margaret Green and H. G. McGee were married in 1893 and had a daughter, Grace, and a son, John. In 1946, he died of a stroke at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he had retired and where their daughter lived. The McGees were members of the First Presbyterian Church and are buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery.

J.E.F. McGee was born in West Virginia in 1961, the youngest of the children of Mary and Manassah McGee. After the death of his father, the family returned to Pennsylvania.

J.E.F. received his education in the public schools of Emsworth, Pennsylvania, Council Bluffs, and at Cornell College at Mt. Vernon, Iowa. He studied law with Hon. Leonard Everett and Col. D.B. Dailey.

By 1886, he had exhausted the inheritance he had received from his father’s estate and obtained a loan to open his law office. In 1887, he saw the coming of the increase in values in real estate and made investments that proved quite profitable.

In 1890, McGee was elected as Superior Court Judge for a term of four years and was re-elected to a second four-year term. According to his biography, he was, at age 29, one of the youngest men on the bench in Iowa.

He was “an active member of the Council Bluffs Board of Trade, foremost in every public enterprise, and accumulated a large amount of valuable property.”

On Oct. 18, 1891, J.E.F. McGee married Kate Pusey, the daughter of Sarah and W.H.M. Pusey. The couple had one son, Pusey McGee. They lived at 527 Willow Ave.

By 1904, H.G. McGee was listed in the city directory at 218 S. Third Street. J.E.F. McGee was living in Independence, Kansas, having moved there to take advantage of the opportunity to invest in the oil fields of southern Kansas and Oklahoma. His investments were successful and, according to his obituary, “he acquired a considerable estate.”

On Dec. 25, 1908, a lengthy article appeared in the Daily Nonpareil, written by McGee regarding the oil fields around Chanute, Kansas. He made his home in Independence, Kansas, while his office was in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the center of the oil fields of that state. Bartlesville and Independence were about forty miles apart and were connected by an interurban line.

J.E.F. McGee died in 1918 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. His funeral took place at the home of Anna and William Cooper, 125 Fairview Avenue, with burial in Walnut Hill Cemetery.

The McGees owned, built and lived at several different addresses. The 1880 census shows Mary, Harry, Anna and John living on Woodbury Avenue.

City directories list more addresses. In 1889, Mary, J.E.F. and H.G. lived at this address (Anna was married); by 1892, J.E.F. had married and moved to 527 Willow; by 1899, Mary and H.G. lived at 220 S. Third St. (the house is still in existence).

In 1902, H.G. lived at 221 Bluff St. In 1904, J.E.F. had moved to Kansas, and H.G. lived at 218 S. Third where, after the death of E.H., Mary, Kate and Pusey McGee made their home. The house is still in existence.

The nomination of the Willow-Bluff Third Street District to the National Register of Historic Places gives the date of construction of this house at 219-221 Bluff St. as c.1887.

Its architecture is significant because the double house was an important property type in Council Bluffs, according to the nomination of the district to the National Register, and, even with the asbestos siding and window replacements, it still retains Queen Anne Stick-style details in the gable ends and in the canted corner rectangular bay windows.

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