Tremont Hall reminiscences

Muscatine Journal article from February 28, 1953 about the planned demolition of historic Tremont Hall

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal on April 19, 2023.

May is Preservation Month, the nationwide celebration of historic places and reminder of the importance of preservation.

Early in 2022 I set out to relate pieces of our shared story framed as local Black History. This is Column 56, with pieces yet to be found.

Last time I told that Frederick Douglass spoke here in 1866, as “Tremont Hall, one of the largest in the State, was packed to its utmost capacity….” Apparently, from various reports, a full house numbered well above 300.

Were Muscatine to memorialize the site where The Colored Orator spoke that April evening, it would be at the Carriage House Carpet One Floor & Home store.

Muscatine Journal, February 28, 1953: “Landmark Will Be Replaced By Modern Building. … It’s the three story brick building at 121 East Second street, which prior to the start of wrecking operations early this year, carried the name Stein Music Hall upon a metal cornice, and on the ground floor was occupied by the F.W. Woolworth Co.”

Alongside a demolition picture is an 1866 photo credited to Musser Public Library. Another good one, circa 1900, is in the library’s Grossheim collection.

Historian Marilyn Bekker: “S.G. Stein and S.G. Hill constructed a new building in 1852. In 1856, the third floor was fitted out for use as a public hall for theatrical entertainments, lectures, debates and other programs. The place was called Tremont Hall, later known as Stein Music Hall. … In later years, the Hall was used by fraternal societies. The building was torn down in 1953 to make room for a new F.W. Woolworth Store.”

The first big-name speaker was Boston anti-slavery orator Wendell Phillips, a few weeks before Iowa’s constitutional convention convened.

Muscatine Daily Journal, December 12, 1856: “The audience was quite large—and for the first time the admirable adaptation of the hall to the purpose for which it was built was tested to the satisfaction of every one present.”

P.T. Barnum, Horace Greeley, and other celebrities filled the hall again and again into the 1880s.

From reminiscences of R.B. Baird at an Old Settlers picnic, reported August 30, 1903:

Many of us will remember Tremont Hall of our city, but the vast majority of our people cannot tell to-day where it was or what became of it. What Fanueil is to Boston and Independence Hall to Philadelphia, so was Tremont Hall in its glory to Muscatine. … Here was held the noon-day prayer meeting, the gay attractions of the theater were presented upon the stage, the lively tripping of flying feet were heard upon its floors, and at one time the manly art of selt-defense was given upon its boards. … Fred Douglass, an ex-slave and celebrated colored orator, lectured here … our own Alex Clark was a frequent speaker. … All parties used the hall during the campaigns and the best ‘spell-binders’ were brought for service. … Old Tremont outlived its time. Olds’ opera house and the Turner opera house supplanted it in the eyes of the public. It was repaired and re-furnished and called Stein’s Music hall, but of no avail. With all its glory and memories the rising generation knew it not. Hail and farewell, old Tremont Hall. A few of us old people remember you.

The place was rich in Black History. Along with Douglass, we should remember the address by Iowa’s first Black high school graduate.

Muscatine Evening Journal, June 24, 1871: “Such a crowd, we may say without fear of successful contradiction, has never before been seen in Tremont Hall. … The stage, decorated with flowers and festoons of leaves, to say nothing of the fine appearance of the graduating class, offfered a most pleasing and refreshing sight  to the audience. … Susie V. Clark is a colored student, daughter of Alexander Clark, and is the first colored person graduated by the High School. She acquitted herself in a manner creditable to herself and her race.”

Repeatedly it was the venue for Emancipation Day events and church fundraisers, with community participation.

June 1, 1871: “The ladies of the African M.E. church willl give a strawberry and ice cream festival at Tremont Hall, to-morrow evening, for the benefit of the pastor. No pains will be spared to make the entertainment pleasant to all who attend.”

September 7, 1864: “There will be an exhibition given at Tremont Hall, Thursday evening, Sept. 8th, by the African M.E. Sabbath School, for the benefit of the Iowa Central Sanitary Fair. The public are respectfully invited. Admission 25 cents, Children 15 cents. A. CLARK, Superintendent.”

“The one funeral held in the hall was when Hon. Alex Clark, minister to the republic of Liberia, was brought home to be buried. He was buried by the colored Masons, many officers of high rank in the order, and ministers of colored churches assisting.” (Baird)

I’m humming Paul Simon: “Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”

Next time: The Carskaddan connection

About the Author(s)


  • Wandering Words

    Hail and farewell,
    Old Tremont Hall:
    where gathered Muscatine
    when orators held forth;
    our cradle of liberty,
    as Faneuil was to Boston.
    Three stories tall until
    At last the wrecker ball.

    I entered this verse in the Muscatine County Arts Council’s “Wandering Words” contest and won. Their rules limited me to eight lines and 25 characters per line. Now it’s etched in the sidewalk at the site I wrote about in the column. ~Dan Clark