The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Harlan, Edgar Rubey
(February 28, 1869–July 13, 1941)

–attorney and museum curator—was born in Spartansburg, Indiana, the son of Samuel Alexander Harlan and Marinda Ellen (Rubey) Harlan. At a young age Harlan moved with his parents to Van Buren County, Iowa. He graduated from Keosauqua High School in 1889 and received his law degree from Drake University Law School in 1896. He married Minnie C. Duffield in 1897 and was elected Van Buren County Attorney in 1898.

    In the early 1900s Harlan helped his father-in-law, George Duffield, prepare his reminiscences of early pioneer life in Van Buren County for publication in the Annals of Iowa. Thus began his relationship with Charles Aldrich, the first curator and director of the Iowa Historical Department. Aldrich convinced Harlan to give up his law practice and brought him to Des Moines to serve as his assistant in 1907. Upon Aldrich's death in 1908, Harlan served as acting curator until he was appointed curator in 1909. He oversaw the development and expansion of the department's museum, library, and archival collections for the next 28 years until his retirement in 1937. He also served as editor of the Annals of Iowa, a publication of the department.

    Harlan had special interests in early pioneer history and the Mormon Trail, but he was especially interested in the Indians of Iowa, particularly the Meskwaki. Harlan was adopted as a member of the tribe in the early 1920s. Besides expanding the Meskwaki collections, he conducted and transcribed interviews with tribal elders. On his farm near Altoona in 1927, he brought in Meskwaki elders to build a village for use in an educational program for Des Moines teachers. Following the program, later published in the Annals of Iowa as the "Indian Life School," tribal members held a first annual powwow for the public. Harlan was responsible for significant acquisitions of the museum's American Indian collections, especially materials from the northern plains tribes.

    Harlan championed the continued development of the natural history collections by supporting the work of Thompson Van Hyning, later the first director of the Florida Museum of Natural History, and by bringing on staff the accomplished taxidermist Joseph Steppan. Steppan mounted specimens of animals native to Iowa that remain as important elements of the museum's collection.

    In the 1920s and 1930s Harlan used the press to give the museum a presence all over the state. He featured particular artifacts from the museum collections in stories that were carried by newspapers throughout Iowa. He created traveling trunk exhibits that were borrowed by teachers and shipped to their schools by rail.

    During and following World War I, Harlan initiated efforts to document Iowans' service in the war. He championed plans for an addition to the museum building to function as a veterans' memorial and exhibit wing. The stock market crash of 1929 and the following depression killed those plans.

    As secretary of the Iowa State Board of Conservation, he was critically involved in establishing Backbone State Park, Iowa's first state park, in 1920, followed closely in 1921 by Lacey-Keosauqua State Park near his boyhood home in Van Buren County. Harlan served state government in other roles, including service on the William Boyd Allison Memorial Commission, Grenville M. Dodge Memorial Commission, and the Revolutionary Soldiers Grave Commission. He served as a technical adviser to the Iowa State Planning Board in the creation of its 1935 report.
Sources The Edgar R. Harlan Papers are held by the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. A small collection of his personal papers, six scrapbooks, and photo albums are in Special Collections, Drake University Library, Des Moines. See also Annals of Iowa 19 (1933–1935), 115–25, 221–34, 352–62; Annals of Iowa 20 (1935–1937), 123–39, 510– 26; and Annals of Iowa 23 (1941–1942), 150– 52, 156–57, 253, 277–86, 316.
Contributor: Jerome Thompson