Presentation hopes to ‘heat up’ McGregor Museum

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One of McGregor’s most interesting historic characters is Emma “Virgin Em” Eastman (right), who was known for marrying nine times. Here, she is pictured with sister Louisa and brother-in-law Jacob Klotzbach.

Stories of local characters Virgin Em, E. Leslie Spaulding to be shared Oct 3.


By Ron Harris, Special to the North Iowa Times

Stories of two of McGregor’s most interesting characters—Emma “Virgin Em” Eastman and E. Leslie Spaulding—will help heat up the McGregor Historical Museum Saturday, Oct. 3, beginning at 6:30 p.m. McGregor native and historian Ron Harris will present on the two figures, providing history and anecdotes about Virgin Em and reading some of the poetry of Spaulding, who was regarded as one of the Midwest’s leading poets before his death in 1939. 

While the history will heat up attendees’ imaginations, the museum also hopes to literally “heat up,” by raising funds to repair its broken furnace before winter begins. A 50/50 raffle will be held to raise funds, while second- and third-place prizes will include a book of Spaulding’s poetry, entitled “Someday I Shall Sing Again,” written by Harris, along with wine glasses. 

Hot apple cider, tea, coffee, cookies and bars will be provided for visitors to enjoy while they take in the entertainment.

Harris has provided some information about Virgin Em to whet the appetite until Saturday evening: 

Readers of the North Iowa Times will recall that “Virgin Em” was a derogatory appellation given to Emma Eastman, who spent her final days in the home of her sister, Louisa, on the Eastman homestead, now the Gene Milewsky farm. Her supposed exploits included marrying a succession of men, dispatching them soon after, and when the inherited money was gone, moving on to another hapless gentleman. The truth is, her life was even more engaging than the wild tales made up by Emma’s detractors.  She indeed had nine husbands, but was happily married to one almost 15 years. There are divorce decrees for some, others have published obituaries, and some have left no record at all. The saga of Emma Eastman includes events in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky. If her assertions are to be believed, she attended the wedding of Sarah Taylor and Jefferson Davis in Louisville in 1835 and danced with the Prince of Wales when he visited Cincinnati in 1860. Emma’s charm and appearance supposedly lured these men into marriage.

Emma’s Eastman ancestors came to New England in the 1640s from Cornwall in the British Isles and moved west to Ohio’s “Western Reserve,” or “Firelands,” in the 1820s and settled in the village of Fitchville in Huron County. In the 1830s, the Eastmans moved to Iowa. Emma’s father, Peter Eastman, homesteaded land near National, and later moved the farming operation a few miles west to land near the top of the John Orr Hill, west of McGregor. 

Emma’s father, Peter, her infant son, Peter D. Cameron, and her sister, Anna, all died in 1854. That year, the Eastman Family Cemetery was established. The site was restored in 2005 by the Clayton County Pioneer Cemetery Commission, Eagle Scout Chris McClellan and Boy Scout troop 40 of Guttenberg, advised by the late Herb Kann. Visible from Kingston Road, the Eastman Cemetery is located in a field atop a hill on the homestead property. An original drive went from Kingston Road to the site, but now the drive is to the Milewsky home and then through a field to the top of the hill.

Emma’s brother, George W. D. Eastman, who at age 42 joined the Union volunteers, died of disease in Memphis and is buried in the military cemetery there. Emma’s sisters Marilla and Louisa continued to live in the area. Louisa married Jacob Klotzbach and farmed the Eastman homestead. Marilla married Martin Van Sickle. Later in 1854, Emma’s mother, Mary Coleman, often called Polly, married  Jacob Van Sickle, brother to Moses, DeWitt Clinton and Martin.

Emma’s first marriage was in 1837 in Fitchville, Ohio. She was almost 14 years old. Eastman family lore says Ephraim Kellogg was an old man who left her a lot of money after his death shortly after the marriage. Other accounts say he was a stage driver and apparently stayed in Ohio.  

Soon after arriving in Iowa, Emma met Moses Van Sickle (husband two), who was from a large family that lived in the Elkader area. Emma married Moses in Grant County, Wis., in 1839, but was divorced in 1841. 

After Emma’s short stint with Moses, she went on to marry William Cunningham (husband number three), who owned land near the Eastman home place west of McGregor. Very little is known about Cunningham, but one rumor had it that he left Emma to run a tavern in southwest Wisconsin.

Peter (husband four) married Emma in Prairie La Croix, as La Crosse was called in the early days, in 1845. It is purported to be that settlement’s first marriage performed by justice of the peace “Scoots” Miller. Emma and Peter operated trading posts in La Crosse and La Crescent. Peter had a plan to build a canal from La Crescent to the Mississippi in order to allow La Crescent to compete with La Crosse for river business. Peter died in 1855, before he could put his canal plan into operation.

Peter D. Cameron was born to Peter and Emma in 1854 in La Crosse, but lived little more than a year, and is buried in the Eastman Cemetery in McGregor.  The Peter D. marker is sometimes mistakenly taken as his father’s tombstone.

The following March, in 1856, Peter and Emma’s son James was born in Freeport, Ill. James is listed as living in Elkader with Emma and DeWitt Clinton Van Sickle in the 1860 census.

After husband Peter’s death, Emma married Ralph Bowles (husband five).  Their marriage was a tempestuous one, but at least they had a memorable honeymoon. Emma stopped at the newspaper office in La Crosse to tell of her trip. The editor reported in the June 16, 1858 edition that Emma recounted rowing across the river to La Crescent and then up the Root River out of Hokah, Minn., shooting ducks and pigeons, and catching a boatload of fish. Emma said she got five pigeons with one shot.

By Jan. 1, 1860, things had turned sour in her marriage to Ralph Bowles. Emma submitted a letter from Bowles to the court as a basis for a divorce. He sent the letter from Pleasantville, Mo., and noted in the letter he heard she was in Galena again, up to her “old tricks.” He used crude language not suitable for a family newspaper! Ralph accused Emma of infidelity, lying, cheating. He concluded, saying “You ought to be hung but it would be a mean trick to nasty a clean rope with you.”

After Bowles, Emma married Nelson Sharp (husband six) in Prairie du Chien Feb. 9, 1861, but no more than the marriage record has been found at the Crawford County Courthouse.

Feb. 18, 1863, Emma next married DeWitt Clinton Van Sickle (husband seven). “Clinty” was Emma’s favorite husband and, until his death in McGregor in 1881, they had, by all accounts, a good marriage living on a farm just outside Elkader. Emma’s son, James, the boy born in Freeport, lived with them until he went out on his own to be a successful businessman. James and wife Eliza are buried in Elkader. DeWitt was killed in McGregor in 1881, just outside the present McGregor Museum, when his team of horses was spooked by another team pulling a rattling load of tin eave spouts. DeWitt’s wagon was overturned and he died of a head injury a few hours later.  

Emma next married Michael Stence (husband eight) on Christmas Day 1881, at the Giard Methodist Church, just five miles west of McGregor. It was said Michael heard her singing while working on his farm near Elkader, and she was on the Van Sickle place next door.  No record has been found of his date of death, although he is buried in the Eastman Cemetery. 

Emma’s last marriage was in 1899 to Joseph A. Wilson (husband nine). After Emma’s death in 1905, local folks said he was last seen heading out of town with a horse and wagon. He is buried in the Eastman Cemetery.

Emma died Feb. 7, 1905, at the home of her sister, Louisa Eastman Klotzbach, on the old Eastman homestead, and was interred in the family cemetery a short distance from the house. There is no tombstone marking her grave and no record of there ever being one.

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