As Long as the City Stands: Honoring Judge George Greene
Cedar Rapids Public Library — Open until August, 2016
“His name is associated with a soon-to-be reopened public space in downtown Cedar Rapids,” reads a page on the History Center’s website, but, “the story of Judge George Greene—for whom Greene Square is named—isn’t necessarily familiar to area residents.”
An exhibit now on display the Cedar Rapids Public Library hopes to change that. I spoke with the exhibit’s curator, historian Mark Stoffer Hunter, in advance of its late October opening.
Who was George Greene? Why — and what — should we know about him?
George Greene was the single most important figure in the first 40 years of developing the city of Cedar Rapids. He arrived in 1841 on horseback, saw only one or two log cabins from a viewpoint atop a hill overlooking the river and had a vision for Cedar Rapids. In 40 years, under his leadership, the city went from a population of five to over eleven thousand people.
Immediately he went to work establishing everything a growing town needed: the first dam on the river, early mills, the post office, first general store, a stagecoach line, he built the first three story brick building featuring the city’s first entertainment hall … and all this before 1856! Before 1865, he also started Grace Episcopal Church, established the first Masonic Lodge Hall and led the way to create Coe College in 1851. He started the first bank, owned over fifty percent of the real estate in town and established what we now call Greene Square.
He sounds like an accomplished man.
His greatest achievement before the Civil War was bringing the railroad to Cedar Rapids in June, 1859. This led to more railroad lines after the War and thus large industry such as Sinclair’s Packinghouse (which started the New Bohemia neighborhood) and the Quaker Oats factory started here in the early 1870s.
He provided land to get the first hospital started and encouraged investors to build large downtown buildings and create a vibrant city center. He had two jobs as a lawyer and Supreme Court Judge for the young State of Iowa.
The list goes on and on …
What is the exhibit exploring?
The exhibit takes a closer look at all his contributions to Cedar Rapids, Linn County and Iowa. It also takes a good look at his personal life and the factors that drove him. We show the story of his home — his private estate called “Mound Farm,” which is now the entire campus of Mount Mercy University.
To what does the exhibit’s title, “As Long as the City Stands,” refer?
On July 4, 1876, nearly all ten thousand people of Cedar Rapids went to his home and presented Greene with a gift of a silver set in thanks for all he had done so far for Cedar Rapids. A speech was said, and in it, the statement was made that he shall be remembered “for as long as the city stands.”
What sort of materials are on display for this exhibit?
The silver set will be on display in this exhibit, and also a rare wagon wheel for the Star Wagon Works, a company of which he was president. There will be many artifacts related to his community development projects, and books written as part of his law career. There are also interactive videos, including one featuring George himself traveling in time from the 19th Century to the future on his trusty horse.
What sort of experience were you hoping to design for museum-goers when you put the exhibit together?
We want the viewer to knows that this great person is more than just somebody that Greene Square is named after in downtown Cedar Rapids.
For more information, visit the History Center’s website.