Clermont, located in Fayette County, was the home of William Larrabee, who was Iowa’s governor for two terms from 1886 to 1890.
Gov. Larrabee was quite a fella. He came to Iowa from Connecticut when he was 21 and started out as a schoolteacher in a log schoolhouse near Dubuque, then hired out as a farm manager.
From that humble start, he got involved in flour milling, farming and a host of other businesses. He eventually owned 100,000 acres of Iowa land. He was also responsible for introducing Brown Swiss dairy cattle to Iowa; he studied the breed and concluded they were best suited for Iowa’s climate.
Gov. Larrabee used some of his wealth to build a mansion on a hill overlooking Clermont and the Turkey River Valley, calling it Montauk. We’ve visited a lot of historic sites and this ranks right at the very top. Put it on your must-see list.
As we walked the grounds—there’s a summer kitchen, ice house, toolshed and barn in addition to the mansion—and looked out over the hill to the river valley below, we almost felt like we were at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Virginia (but without the crowds because so few people know about this historic treasure).
The two estates don’t look the same, but Montauk exudes the same sense of grandeur as Mount Vernon.
The Larrabee mansion, though not as large, is even more interesting than Washington’s home, to our way of thinking. It was built in 1874—and built to last, with a limestone foundation 24 inches thick and solid brick walls, also 24 inches thick. Massive arched doorways open to rooms with 12-foot ceilings on the first floor and 11 feet on the second floor.
But what really makes Montauk special are all of the original furnishings, artwork and personal memorabilia still in the home. One of the Larrabee children, Miss Anna, lived there until she died at the age of 96, and she kept it much as it was when her parents were alive.
After she passed away in 1965, the Larrabee heirs turned the mansion and its contents over to the state. So unlike estates that are sold and resold, and parceled out here and there, Montauk stayed intact.
The Larrabees traveled extensively to Europe and elsewhere and brought back marble statuary and artwork that’s still in the house. Among these treasures is a seascape that was painted in 1670. Imagine that.
Gov. Larrabee was on the leading edge of technology, and the mansion featured indoor plumbing and steam heat—both rarities in those days. The house had its own water tower, with a windmill that pumped water to the elevated tank to provide water pressure for the plumbing system.
This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at www.OurIowaMagazine.com.