George and Maria Gaston
The story of Tabor started in northeastern Ohio in the 1840s where the revolutionary ideas of Oberlin College were imprinted on town founders George Belcher Gaston, Samuel H. Adams, and Reverend John Todd; these men brought Oberlin’s values with them to Iowa, convinced that all people, men and women as well as people of color, could live, work and receive an education together in a Christian community. The initial push to move came from Gaston, a former agricultural missionary to the Pawnee in Nebraska who in the summer of 1847 was farming in Ohio’s Lorain County. Gaston and friend Adams convinced Congregational minister Todd, a graduate of Oberlin then ministering in Clarksfield, that with his spiritual leadership a 'colony' could be successfully planted in the windswept and sparsely populated prairie west of the Mississippi River in southwest Iowa. Reverend Todd agreed and in the autumn of 1848, joined the small group of ten persons who journeyed by train, boat, and on horseback to the area known as Civil Bend, located close to the Missouri River near present-day Percival. The group was welcomed by Gaston’s sister and her husband, Elvira and Lester Platt who had moved to the area the previous year. The newcomers commenced working on their envisioned community and some progress was made. But over the course of the next three years it became evident that the Civil Bend area was not a suitable location for their 'Oberlin of the West'. Regular flooding of the river and disease-carrying mosquitoes made the bottomland untenable—higher ground was needed, and after a careful search east of the flood plain, a home was found and named after Mount Tabor from the Book of Joshua. The year was 1852.
The early homes were built using a combination of mud-dried adobe brick, limestone, and local cottonwood and oak. Milled lumber was scarce and expensive so trees served as floor joists and beams and lath were hand hewn. Gaston and Adams built their homes first, followed by Todd who moved his small family into their frame house in the late summer of 1853. The Tabor colonists kept in touch with friends in Ohio and each spring more settlers arrived who were committed to making the enterprise a success. In the early years Todd recalled the village as being “about as near a pure democracy as is ever found” since all public projects were discussed and voted upon in open assembly—first among them the construction of a school, in 1854. The town was platted in 1858 with residential streets and lots laid out around a ten-acre public square, donated by the Gaston family; a further six acres just north of the square reserved as the future home of the college. Commerce was also important and one of the earliest businesses was the town’s hotel, located on the northwest corner of Main and Orange streets, owned by Jesse West who also acted as postmaster and blacksmith. As Tabor’s roots took hold, it couldn’t ignore gathering storm clouds in what became known as Bleeding Kansas. Beginning in 1854 the village became an important part of Iowa’s Underground Railroad with families helping fugitives escape the ravages of slavery as well as providing a safe harbor for abolitionist John Brown and his men.
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Tabor College in 1875 as depicted in a Fremont County atlas. The school was situated just north of the town's central park on land donated by the Gaston family. The recently completed Congregational church was seen as the heart of the community and school and was frequently used for civic programs and performances.
During its first decade Tabor’s growth was described as slow but steady, largely governed by settlement in the surrounding Fremont and Mills counties, but notable cultural and commercial strides made after the Civil War years put the young town on the map: Tabor College was officially opened in 1866 with a three-story brick building erected in 1869 to house the school rooms and a dormitory; the town was incorporated on December 10, 1868, with George Gaston elected as mayor and ground was broken in 1872 for the new Congregational Church, a brick edifice designed to hold 1000 worshippers. Other civic milestones included construction in 1876 of a new two-story public school on Center Street and the debut of the Nonconformist in 1879, the town’s first successful newspaper. By 1875 the population, not including college students, was 195 men, women and children.
The 1890s saw another spurt in Tabor’s growth when a standard-gauge railroad was constructed connecting the town with the Burlington Line in the town of Malvern, nine miles northeast. The Tabor and Northern was a commercial boost for farmers, merchants and Tabor College, making it easier to recruit students from outside the local area. As a new century dawned, Tabor’s citizens supported a long list of civic improvements reflecting their commitment and pride: there was the construction of the first sewer system in 1906; installation of an electrical lighting system which replaced coal oil street lamps in 1909; a new brick high school in 1918; a volunteer fire department in 1925; and on September 9, 1932, a movie theater on Main Street. Tabor’s self-sufficiency was reflected in its business district during the early decades of the 20th century; the town was home to resident doctors and dentists, banks, grocery, clothing and hardware stores, lumber yards, jewelers, barber shops, liveries and later, auto repair facilities and gas stations. The population of the town peaked in the early 1920s with the census recording 1,186 souls in residence.
Tabor's main street, looking south, around 1910. Although planned years earlier, paving of city streets would not commence until 1919.
As in all communities there have been challenging times and those who call Tabor home have weathered economic downturns, natural disasters and the sacrifices borne by loved ones those who answered their nation’s call during times of war. But Tabor continues to thrive—its people are justifiably proud of their accomplishments and are confidently meeting the future with an optimistic spirit.