Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
FAIRFIELD — Parsons College called Fairfield home from its founding in 1875 until its closure 98 years later.
The college was named after Lewis B. Parsons Sr., who died in 1855 and who left a bequest to start a Christian college in Southeast Iowa. His two sons, Charles and Lewis B. Parsons Jr., chose to locate the college in Fairfield.
In 2020, a biography was published on Charles Parsons (1824-1905), who led an extraordinary life that included being an adviser to presidents and Civil War generals, and who was a world-traveling art connoisseur, helping to found the first art museum west of the Mississippi River.
The book is called “The Life and Times of Missouri's Charles Parsons: Between Art and War” by author John Launius. The book details more than Charles’s successful business career in banking and finance, but also his remarkable collection of American, European and Asian art, his philanthropic work, and his role as a quartermaster during the Civil War, helping to secure a Union victory.
Carnegie Historical Museum
As part of his research into Charles’s life, Launius visited the Carnegie Historical Museum in Fairfield, which holds the only known painting of Charles Parsons, as well as the only paintings of Charles’s father and mother.
“The Carnegie museum is such a wonderful gem,” Launius said. “It has so many minute things that can get overlooked, but it was extraordinary for someone like me researching the life of Charles Parsons.”
Carnegie Historical Museum Director Mark Shafer said that the lone portrait of Charles Parsons was nearly lost. He said Bill and Pat Medley, then music professors at Parsons College, were walking across campus one day when one of them noticed a worker clearing storage from the basement of Barhydt Chapel. Among the items being cleared out of the basement was a painting of Charles Parsons and its original frame, which they took with them when they retired to Texas, but which the museum was later able to retrieve and put on display.
When Lewis B. Parsons Sr. visited his son Charles in Keokuk, he was so taken by the beauty of the countryside that he purchased land in the area, telling his sons he wanted to create a Christian college. After Lewis B. Parsons Sr. died in 1855, it was up to his sons to fulfill his wish, the only thing left to do was select a location for the college.
Launius said a number of towns in the area were vying to host the college, but the delegation from Fairfield stuck out.
“The Lutheran leadership in Fairfield was the only group to say a prayer before their meeting, and that impressed the Parsons brothers so much they decided to put the college there,” Launius said.
After Parsons College was up and running, Charles continued to work toward its success, creating endowments for professorships on Biblical literature and Latin language and literature. He gave more than $150,000 to the college, equivalent to about $4.5 million today.
During the Civil War, the Parsons brothers were quartermasters responsible for moving and supplying Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s armies. Launius said Lewis and Charles made an “extraordinary contribution to the country we’re living in” by moving men and supplies to nearly all the major battles along the Mississippi River such as the Battle of Vicksburg.
“Gen. Sherman and Gen. Grant became best friends with the Parsons brothers because they helped the Union win the war,” Launius said.
Charles helped found the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts in 1881, which would become the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park, and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, located on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.
Over a decade ago, Launius was hired to direct security operations at the museum, which contains numerous artifacts and paintings from Charles Parsons. Launius, himself a connoisseur of Chinese and Japanese art, and the Japanese refinement art of incense appreciation, known as The Way of Incense (Koh-do), noticed that one artifact from Japan was incorrectly labeled a “bowl” when it was in fact an incense burner, from the Tokugawa Shogunate, the ruling class of Japan from 1603 — 1867.
The museum’s director was impressed with his knowledge of the subject and asked him to write an essay on it. That’s how Launius started to learn more about Charles Parsons’s art collection and the amazing life he lived.
Launius went on to spend 10 years researching Charles Parsons. At one point, he came to Fairfield to deliver a talk on his life. He spent a year writing the book and published it in February 2020.
“The pandemic did not help the book tour,” Launius said, noting that he did two book signings before COVID-19 restrictions shut everything down, and he had to find new ways to share the book with the public.
Launius hopes he’ll be able to promote the book more in 2022, and said it would be fun to return to Fairfield for another talk. The book is available online or anywhere books are sold.