C. W. Slagle: Fairfield Iowa lawyer

November 1, 2010

Christian Slagle, Fairfield IA lawyer.
Why does this man’s portrait greet us as we enter the Fairfield Public Library, and what does he have to do with Chautauqua Park?

Christian Wolff Slagle, one of Iowa’s pioneer lawyers, was born November 20, 1820 in Washington, Pennsylvania, the eldest son and second of nine children of harness-maker and saddler Jacob Slagle and the widow Martha (Alison) McKemey. By previous marriage each of his parents had an older son, and both became saddlers, like Jacob: Martha’s son Joseph Alison McKemey came to Iowa in 1839, settled near Fairfield in 1842, and partnered in the 1850s with Jacob’s oldest son James M. Slagle, selling harness and saddlery in a one-story, wooden shop on the west corner of the north side of Fairfield’s square, now numbered 61 W. Broadway.

Christian was evidently more cerebral than his half-brothers, and after graduating from Washington College in 1840 he studied law for several years with Hon. Thomas McKean Thompson McKennan, as would Caleb Baldwin several years later. Upon being admitted to the bar in 1843, Christian chose his boyhood friend George Acheson as his law-partner. At first glance the two made an unlikely pair, for Slagle was a blond and phlegmatic Whig and Republican while Acheson was a short, dark, nervously quick and eloquent Democrat, until the ourbreak of the Civil War. But their differences were clearly complementary, as their partnership endured for the rest of their lives, nearly forty years. By then they had become the oldest law firm not only in Fairfield, but in all of Iowa.

Messrs. Slagle and Acheson arrived in Fairfield on April 23, 1843. Iowa was then recently organized as a territory; the government land office had been removed from Burlington to Fairfield in 1842, and business was booming. The two first boarded upstairs in a wooden building at 107 E. Broadway, where Caleb Baldwin’s father Nehemiah would later reside. Slagle & Acheson opened their first law-office in the National Hotel, on the north side of the square.

The two friends even became quasi-related in 1847, when George Acheson married Mary Hemphill, whose sister had married Christian W. Slagle’s half-brother Joseph McKemey three years earlier. George and Mary eventually had five children. Not to be outdone, in 1849 Christian wedded Nancy M. Seward, with whom he had six children.

In August 1852 the partners moved their law office to 110 S. Main, where they would ever after remain. Perhaps they retained a soft spot for the old National Hotel, however, for in 1875 they collaborated with George W. Workman and built on its site the brick block which remains there today, at 53-57 W. Broadway.

Despite his firm support of the Republican party and his life-long passion for civil rights, Slagle refused all invitations to enter into politics, channeling his civic impulses in other ways. He was a charter member of Iowa Encampment No. 6 of the International Order of Odd Fellows, organized in December 1848. He helped found the Jefferson County Agricultural Society and also the State Agricultural Society. From its inception in 1853 he unflaggingly supported Fairfield’s public library and museum, and was one of its first trustees. He collected and preserved the recollections of Jefferson County pioneers in a county history. He was also a regent of the State University of Iowa from 1866 to 1882, and acting president of the University in 1877-8.

In the 1860s Messrs. Slagle & Acheson purchased a portion of the old Bayard Farm east of town: a lovely sanctuary with wooded hills and stream which for years had been known as Bayard’s Grove. Naturally it was then called Slagle & Acheson’s Grove, and later simply Slagle’s Grove.

George Acheson died in April 1881; C. W. Slagle died in October of 1882, and today practically no one remembers Slagle’s Grove. Nonetheless the grove remains, beautiful as always and accessible to all, though since 1906 it has been known as Chautauqua Park.

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