Iron Shackles & Old Rock Houses on the Mississippi River

When Mama packed me home from Hannibal’s Levering Hospital in early August 1950, she laid me on a bed in House No. 8 shown on this crudely drawn 1933 map by the Ralls County, Missouri Tax Assessor’s office. South of House No. 35 near the downriver end of Monkey Run was a mysterious old rock house along the railroad tracks that hugged the west bank of the Mississippi River. Next to the building was a house where Henry A. Harris once commanded a small slave-based tobacco plantation of seventy-eight acres. Shortly after the Civil War broke out, he reportedly threatened to fire a canon at a passing Union boat on the river. In 1907, Harris’s bottomland tract was created as Stillwell’s First Addition to Ilasco, soon popularly known as Monkey Run.

Something told me, a child with a fertile imagination, that the old rock structure held countless secrets, stories, and mysteries. It seemed more like a holding pen of some kind to me, but I learned that John Kuzma, an elderly Slovak immigrant, inhabited it rent-free in the 1940s. I was captivated by the rock house, although to tell you the truth, I was about half-afraid of it. I never dared to peek inside until one day when I was about ten years old. As the “paper boy” of the village, I found nobody home when I knocked at the residence next to it on the property. I slipped a copy of the Hannibal Courier-Post inside the outside door of the residential house, glanced in the direction of the river, and hustled over for a furtive look inside the rock structure. To greet me were rusty remnants of iron shackles on the walls, reminders of slavery’s stain on America’s past and its ongoing legacies. I dashed out of there, and never again did I step foot inside the old rock house.

John Kuzma and the old rock house, 1943, photo courtesy of Paul Tretiak, deceased.

Nearly fifty years later, while doing early research that led to my book, Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle (2011), I discovered that Edwards’s enslaved maternal grandparents paddled across the Mississippi River at night to freedom from somewhere in Missouri on the eve of the Civil War. They feared they were about to be sold down the river. At first, I had no idea where they crossed the river, but my gut instinct kept telling me it was near Hannibal. I guess I trusted in the synchronicity of things. Later, my research proved my hunches and intuition right.

Anna Bell Johnson Edwards, mother of Thyra Edwards. Photo courtesy of Vee Edwards, deceased.

At the moment my research confirmed that they crossed the river near Hannibal via the Underground Railroad and settled in Galesburg, Illinois, I reflected on the day my curiosity led me inside the old rock house at the south end of Monkey Run near Cottonwood Point. Could it be that Edwards’s grandparents fled the Harris plantation? The answer was “No.” They were not of the tobacco plantation that later became Monkey Run. Until further research proved me wrong, though, I was left to imagine that on the night of their escape when the moon hid behind the bluffs, sparkling visions of freedom led them from the dark side of that old rock house to a birch “freedom canoe” hidden in the heavy willows on the bank of the river.

Photo by Victoria Bynum taken in the early 2000s. The photo shows an attached shed.

Unfortunately, the building was torn down about fifteen years ago, but the interactions of my fragmented childhood memory of it and my historical research inspired me to write a song, Gonna Be Free, about the daring escape near Hannibal by Edwards’s grandparents around 1860. You can listen to the song by clicking on the link below.

Doctor G and the Mudcats, “Gonna Be Free,” Cheatham Street Records, B.M.I., 2010.

10 responses to “Iron Shackles & Old Rock Houses on the Mississippi River”

  1. Rhonda Brown Hall Avatar
    Rhonda Brown Hall

    I love it and thank you for telling the story. We gonna be free someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rhonda. I sure hope so.


  2. Both the story and the song gave me chills.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bev. I’m glad you enjoyed both. How well I remember the night I started writing the song!


  3. Reminding me myself growing up in the 50s and it’s not uncommon to see the remnants of slavery across the South. Every young person I remember looking in the building and wondering about all the pain that must have been endured. Thanks for adding the music from dr. G in them Cats

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your comment, Kelly. Thank you. What part of the South did you grow up in? Texas? Yes, as kids, we were just beginning to put a few pieces of the puzzle together. Glad you enjoy our music.


  4. Jackie Robb Walsh Avatar
    Jackie Robb Walsh

    I never knew of slavery there in Monkey Run. So interesting, thank you for sharing the history. And the song says so much. Made me feel sad…we must never forget!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jackie. Neither did I until I began to research and write City of Dust. I’m delighted the song resonated with you. Hope you’re doing well.


  5. Great oral history! That “crudely drawn map” really brought the story to life for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Heinz. I love that map, too.


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