Dubuque’s Early Public Institutions
Following the end of the Black Hawk War, legal settlements in what would become Iowa began in 1833. Just five years later, Dubuquers established their first public institution – they found the need to build a jail. In 1848, two years after President James K. Polk signed the bill which admitted Iowa as the 29th state in the Union, the facility that became known as the House of Refuge was established to shelter the destitute, indigent, transient, and mentally ill. The Pest House, established in 1855, quarantined new arrivals who might have or were suffering from small pox. Finally, in 1856, public schools were established. 1,200 students enrolled for the first year.
No Place for Respectable Women
The next wave of institutional establishments began with the founding of Mt. Pleasant Home in 1874. Fifty-three prominent Dubuque women incorporated the “Home for the Friendless.” In their unsuccessful request for funds from the state, they declared it unacceptable that the County Poor House, successor to the House of Refuge, sheltered “unfortunate but upright women and innocent children” with transients and the insane. Mt. Pleasant’s founders proposed a private charity supported by charitably-minded volunteers. The plan was to correct a system where “the keeping of these women is farmed out to political adventurers who care little for the welfare of those under their charge, and much for the profits [made] by a sharp manager in the course of a few years.”
These 53 ladies envisioned and then persevered in creating a permanent home that cut across religious and social boundaries. Mt. Pleasant Home’s founders included Julia Langworthy, leader of Dubuque’s genteel society. Julia and her husband, Solon, had established the generous and unusual precedent of opening their home to all callers on New Year’s Eve, not just to the well-to-do. Celina Levi, another of the founding women, was the wife of a successful Jewish dry goods merchant. Dr. Nancy Hill, new to Dubuque, also joined in the incorporation and provided medical services. Dr. Hill’s lifelong concern for pregnant, single mothers and their children directly led to the later founding of Hillcrest.
Board members were elected for life and were expected to remain committed and hands-on. In 1876, the minutes show each board member was assigned to one street, for example 2nd, 3rd, or 4th, through 17th, and were asked to search out to the suffering poor on both sides of the street from the bluff to the river. Originally, the staff and corporation were restricted to women only. After initially hiring out heavier work, the Board reluctantly relented several years later and added a “house man” to the staff to tend the garden and furnace, install storm windows, and perform other duties. Though it may seem a bit harsh today, boys who reached the age of 13 and girls who turned 14 were expected to leave the home for positions where they “could do for themselves.”
The founding of Mt. Pleasant Home to care for abandoned women and children was followed by a surge of new local social institutions. In 1880, Mercy Hospital and the associated Orphan’s Asylum were constructed. St. Joseph’s Sanitarium, established in 1885, provided for the mentally ill. Finley Hospital was founded in 1890. Homes also were established for the elderly, “erring women,” and “wayward girls.”
Unchanging Commitment: Changing Needs
Throughout its history, Mt. Pleasant Home has provided a safe, economical home that supports the independence of each resident, especially those with limited financial and support resources. As Dubuque began meeting the needs that prompted the founding of Mt. Pleasant Home, the Mt. Pleasant Board found an increasing need to house “old ladies” and “half orphans” – children who often returned to a parent once the parent had recovered their health, remarried, or stabilized their home life. An addition in 1894 added a library for study on the first floor and a boys’ dormitory on the second.
A contemporary local social worker described the combination of an old ladies’ home with a children’s home as a seemingly half-baked idea that actually worked! Foster care eventually ended Iowa’s children’s homes; the last of Mt. Pleasant’s children left in 1957. Mt. Pleasant was one of the early community services supported by the annual Community Chest (later the United Way) fundraising. With no children’s services to offer, the board withdrew from United Way funding.
Fifty years ago, Mt. Pleasant Home was one of only a few residences for the elderly. Today, seniors in Dubuque have a wealth of choices. Sustained governmental and community support have blessed this community with a wide range of accommodations – from spacious senior living communities to specialized facilities for assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care.
Decades after similar institutions have faded away, Mt. Pleasant continues to thrive. Some clues may be found in the thousands of pages of Board minutes that somehow survived repeated house cleanings. They now are housed at Loras College’s Center for Dubuque History. The records supply a rare contemporary account of Dubuque’s social and cultural scene and also provided the phrases quoted in this article.
No other senior facility in Dubuque compares to Mt. Pleasant Home. The 40 residents enjoy a small, home-like, mutually supportive community. There still is a large, involved working board elected for life. Each resident can expect a monthly visit from a board member. Care is taken to retain a committed staff that knows each resident personally and interacts with them at least four times a day.
Residents enjoy three meals every day cooked by two chefs. The monthly rent includes all costs: weekly housekeeping and laundry, arranged transportation, activities, parking, wi-fi, cable, and more. Residents can arrange for the healthcare provider of their choice.
Today, Mt. Pleasant Home continues to meet the founder’s vision of providing a safe, economical home that supports the independence of each resident, especially those with limited financial and support resources.